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Forgotten humanitarian crises: Suffering in silence

January 13, 2022

Many humanitarian crises get little media attention and unfold unnoticed by most people around the world. The result: Less support for those in need. The aid organization CARE wants to change that.

female refugee with infant sitting outside tent in a refugee camp in South Sudan
Many humanitarian crises of major proportions don't get reported on in international mediaImage: Stefanie Glinski/Welthungerhilfe

The Victoria Falls in the very south of Zambia look like a gigantic curtain of water. At more than 1,700 meters (more than one mile), the UNESCO World Heritage Site is the widest waterfall in the world. The spray of water from the Zambezi River, which cascades down a 110-meter-deep gorge, is so enormous that it waters the adjacent rainforest. It is a magnificent natural spectacle, but its abundance of water is in maximum contrast to the rest of Zambia.

Like many other countries in southern Africa, Zambia is plagued by long periods of drought. Crops regularly wither. Malnutrition is widespread among the country's 18.4 million inhabitants.

"1.2 million people there suffer from hunger and 60% of the population lives below the poverty line," says CARE Germany's communications director, Sabine Wilke, in an interview with DW. "We see it as a typical chronic crisis." There has been no war or earthquake "that would allow us to say that was when the crisis started. But Zambia is one of the countries where we see the dramatic effects of climate change: Repeated and more severe droughts. People cannot recover from the effects of drought and are continually dependent on humanitarian aid," Wilke explains.

a group of Zambian villagers with bags of WFP aid donations
Zambia is plagued by recurring drought and relies heavily on food aidImage: Guillem Sartorio/AFP/Getty Images

As dramatic as the situation in Zambia may be, it receives little international media coverage. This makes it one of the crises that are largely hidden from view and which CARE includes in its publication "Suffering in Silence: The Most Under-Reported Humanitarian Crises of 2021." For the sixth time, the annual media analysis lists ten crises, each of which have affected at least one million people but have barely been reported on in international online media.

Signal of humanity

"The accelerating climate crisis is fuelling many of the emergencies we are seeing around the world, including 7 out of the 10 crises featured in this report. And there is deep injustice at the heart of it," wrote CARE's UK CEO Laurie Lee in his foreword to the report. "The world's poorest are bearing the brunt of climate change — poverty, migration, hunger, gender inequality, and ever more scarce resources — despite having done the least to cause it."

"We want to send the signal that humanitarian crises need attention not only depending on their political relevance or their presence in the media, but that no matter where and how many people are suffering, the world must look," says Sabine Wilke, who co-authored "Suffering in Silence."

Migrants in Guatemala
According to official statistics, more than 40% of Guatemala's population of 17 million live in povertyImage: Sandra Sebastian/AP/picture-alliance

Based on data from the United Nations, ACAPS, an NGO that provides humanitarian analysis, humanitarian information portal Reliefweb, and its own information, CARE identified countries where at least one million people were affected by conflict or climate-related disasters. The resulting list of 40 major crises was subjected to media analysis of 1.8 million online articles in English, German, French, Arabic, and Spanish that were published between January and September 2021. The CARE report summarizes the ten crises that received the least attention.

According to the report, Zambia tops the list, followed by emergencies in Ukraine, Malawi, the Central African Republic , Guatemala, Colombia, Burundi, Niger, Zimbabwe, and Honduras. In 2020, Madagascar was top of the CARE list.

Cleaning up Malawi

Ukraine temporarily out of focus

The fact that Ukraine is ranked second among the forgotten crises may seem surprising, as the country is so much in the headlines now, due to the Russian build-up of troops close to its border. However, this conflict developed only after September 2021.

"Ukraine got a lot more attention again in November and December, especially in the European media. And now it probably would not appear on the list this year as it did," explains CARE researcher Wilke.

As in previous CARE analyses, most of the forgotten crises are in Africa. There were six in 2021, and Malawi stands out alongside Zambia and the Central African Republic, which is a fixture in the list of the forgotten crises because of its ongoing civil war. In Malawi, more than one million people go hungry every day.

39% of children under the age of five are underdeveloped due to malnutrition. Nearly half of all children do not even attend four years of primary school. The COVID vaccination campaign in the country is making only very slow progress. The high number of HIV infections places an additional burden on the country's health system: Almost 10% of the population is infected, including many children.

Femicide in Honduras

It is women and children who suffer the most from crises. CARE researchers have observed this, especially in Honduras. Almost one-third of the approximately ten million inhabitants are dependent on humanitarian aid. The lack of jobs and an increasing crime rate, as well as corruption,drive the younger generation abroad. "In Honduras, people often talk about poverty being female, because it is mostly women who are left at home with the children," the CARE authors write.

At the same time, violence against women has continued to rise sharply since the COVID pandemic began, they add. "Statistics from 2021 record one femicide every 29 hours in Honduras. The murder rate for women is 50% higher than anywhere else in Latin America."

The fact that the forgotten crises produced so few headlines can only be partly explained by the fact that crisis regions with poor infrastructure are difficult for reporters to reach.

Newspapers showing articles about Harry and Meghan
International media report extensively on celebrity news

Sobering logic of crisis aid

Also, people tend to be more interested in reading about things happening close to home rather than far away.

But still: "We are amazed at the priorities set by the global media," the CARE researchers remarked. "For example, there were more than 360,000 reports in online media about Prince Harry and his wife Meghan's interview with Oprah Winfrey. On the other hand, only 512 publications cared to mention the more than one million people in Zambia suffering from acute food insecurity."

Often media exposure triggers immediate consequences in countries in crisis. This can make the difference between life and death. "When crises get media attention, they also get political attention," says CARE communications director Wilke.

Aid donors such as the European Commission pay attention to the most high-profile crises, she adds. "But," Wilke continues, "we notice again and again that when we talk to donors, we first have to explain, why Zambia? 'We haven't heard anything about that this year.' And so there's a very direct link: Less attention means less funding, and that means fewer opportunities to alleviate suffering."

This article was originally written in German.

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