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African Food Crisis: Our Ability to Save Children's Lives Depends on the Spotlight of the Media

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Last summer I made a plea on The Today programme for the UK media to take notice of 'famine over foam' (the media were giving blanket coverage to the Murdochs and the hacking scandal) and help us draw attention to the simple fact that children were dying in huge swathes of East Africa because they did not have enough to eat.

This week Save the Children and Oxfam released a damning report about the failure of the international community to heed the warnings of the spreading nutritional crisis in East Africa quickly enough. This "dangerous delay" they say, cost lives.

Their findings focused not only the failure of international governments and agencies to act upon the warnings, but the lack of interest from media until it had reached crisis point. This meant that an earlier opportunity to generate global awareness of the situation and raise the millions of pounds necessary for aid agencies to deliver vital supplies to mitigate the crisis was missed.

UNICEF has been working in Somalia, Kenya and Ethiopia for decades, providing children and women with life-saving supplies and, as the world's leading children's charity, we have always stressed that early warnings need to be followed by early action. Our response in East Africa began as far back as November 2010 and we were saving lives well before the world took interest.

But UNICEF, like other organisations, needs donor money to buy supplies. How can we expect members of the public, who rely on finding out what is happening around the world by reading what is in their daily news paper or breakfast chat show, to donate to such emergencies if they don't even know it is happening?

Famines are the perfect 'non-news' story. They don't happen overnight but arise from slow burning, crippling emergencies that can go on for months, even years with few people outside the world of international development knowing about them. Put quite simply, they are too easy for the media to ignore, until they reach crisis point.

The emergency that unfolded in the Horn of Africa was a classic example of that. But I had renewed hope this week that this report which claimed the headline news on the BBC and the front page of the Guardian could change things.

For as I write, another potential children's nutritional emergency is unfolding in the western heartland of Africa - the Sahel. I hoped that this would be a huge opportunity for us to learn the lessons and respond more rapidly.

The region has been suffering from a chronic food shortage for years, but there have been no consistent eyes, ears or interest from the international media about the plight of all the children caught up in the crisis.

As we were in East Africa long before the crisis hit the headlines, UNICEF, along with partners, is working in the region urgently preparing health systems and stocking up on life-saving emergency food for children in affected countries. But to try and address the growing crisis as quickly as possible we urgently need more money to reach more children.

The BBC is already there with us in Niger. Reporting from the ground in a country where already every other child is suffering from acute malnutrition. On the same day that the report from Save and Oxfam was released, their world affair's correspondent Mike Woolridge warned in his dispatch that unless urgent action was taken and funding received, the international community were going to have another humanitarian crisis on their hands.

Our UNICEF press office seized the opportunity. This was our chance to get the word out, to engage the media, and give a voice to the thousands of children across the region whose lives are already hanging in the balance.

The media response? "This story is not on our news agenda."

"Another potential food crisis in Africa? We don't have space to cover it this evening I am afraid, we are focussing on the ship."

It is deeply ironic that there are no column inches left for them to report on a major potential food crises that could again claim the lives of thousands of people, whilst in the same breath they are running headlines criticising themselves for missing the last one.

The public should never be discouraged by thinking that their generous donations were 'lost' - we could not do our work, development or humanitarian, without public and government support, and as soon as the contributions started to come in for the Horn of Africa, they were put to use to save lives and make a positive difference.

But our ability to save the lives of hungry children does critically depend on the media spotlight - a news anchor's voice or an editor's pen to help us raise awareness and generate funds.

I was hopeful this week the media would lend a hand so we could write a different ending for the children of West Africa. Sadly, it appears not.

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