Thirty years since Michael Burke's iconic report from famine hit Ethiopia, the Ebola crisis in West Africa risks once again reinforcing the false stereotype of helpless Africa.
"Dawn, and as the sun breaks through the piercing chill of night on the plain outside Korem, it lights up a biblical famine..." So began the report, first broadcast 30 years ago, by BBC correspondent Michael Burke on Ethiopia's devastating famine. The images of thousands of people starving to death shocked the world and galvanised millions to take action, including the 1985 Live Aid concerts.
This also marked a new era in how the media and many people in Europe perceived Africa. Images of suffering, depravation and reliance on Western charity became the default means of depicting and understanding the whole of Sub-Saharan Africa.
Over the past 30 years, much has changed. Nine out of the twenty-five fastest growing economies in the world are found in Africa. I have seen first-hand what decades of investment and commitment to building resilience in countries like Ethiopia have achieved. Ethiopia has experienced rapid economic growth as well as reduced child mortality rates, falling by more than 67% since 1990.
The tide appeared to be turning in how we all talked and thought about African countries. International Medical Corps and the European Commission have been running a photography competition all year, as part of the First Responders campaign, calling for photos that challenge the stereotypes of humanitarian assistance. The photos we have received have been genuinely inspiring.
Yet, here in 2014, we once again find ourselves bombarded with images of a disaster of terrifying scale and ferocity, causing suffering in a corner of the African continent. The Ebola outbreak is making headlines around the globe, but its effects are being felt almost exclusively in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea. More than 9,000 people have now been infected with Ebola in West Africa and 4,500 have died.
The international community has mobilised on a massive scale. We are part of an organisation that has deployed scores of international experts and will soon be sending hundreds of international volunteers from the UK and across Europe. Yet, what is striking about the response to the Ebola crisis is how much it depends upon the bravery and skill of local people. A single Ebola Treatment Unit in Liberia, operated by International Medical Corps and funded by the European Commission and other donors employs more than 110 Liberians. They drive the ambulances that collect the patients with suspected Ebola. They help bury the bodies of those who have died. They are the nurses working alongside international colleagues inside the yellow protective suits that are coming to define this crisis. Local First Responders are the face of this crisis and they deserve to be the defining images of it as well.
As media crews begin to arrive in West Africa, we are urging for there to be no repeat of the Michael Burke film. It was vital and needed at its time, but today, 30 years later, a very different part of the continent may need our help, but the bravery of its first responders also deserves our respect.
The First Responders campaign is a collaboration between International Medical Corps and the European Commission Humanitarian Aid to raise awareness and understanding around the extraordinary actions of ordinary people during times of crisis.