Posted by: africanpressorganization | 20 October 2008

Believe in Africa / War, poverty, HIV’ and hope




Believe in Africa / War, poverty, HIV’ and hope


JOHANNESBURG, South-Africa, October 20, 2008/African Press Organization (APO)/ — The time has come for some good news from Africa, says Juan Manuel Suárez del Toro, President of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.


Humanitarian organizations seeking funds for relief operations in Africa face an acute dilemma. If we stress the suffering of Africans who lack food or health care, who struggle against floods, drought and possibly famine, who flee war and communal violence, we risk reinforcing the image of Africa as a “basket case”, beyond help.


If we take the purely positive approach, the donors – whose resources are scarce and with the global financial crisis becoming more so – are unlikely to respond.

Hunger again stalks parts of Ethiopia while the food-security situation in Zimbabwe is widely regarded as the worst ever. Both countries are the focus of major – but so far poorly covered – appeals for funding by the Red Cross Red Crescent.


In 2008 conflict simmered in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia and Darfur and flared anew in Burundi, Chad and Mali; there was serious communal violence in Ghana and South Africa – all reported in the western media, which also picked up on other “negative” stories like piracy in Somali and Nigerian waters, the persecution of albinos, and xenophobic violence.


But has this depressing portrayal of Africa as a “chamber of horrors” become a self-fulfilling prophecy, smothering the good news that also exists in increasing quantities? Is it now, in itself, an obstacle to progress, making the world turn away from Africa in despair?


It’s far too early to say HIV in Africa is beaten,
but could it have peaked?


Everyone knows that, almost by definition, “news” tends to be bad news, often inherently more dramatic, timely and compelling than mundane reality. Humanitarians have to be realistic: a sudden outbreak of fighting and an overnight exodus of refugees are always going to be more “newsworthy” than a complex emergency petering out over weeks or months while refugees trickle home.


But is there really any reason why a rise in HIV prevalence in Africa is more interesting to audiences than a fall – which is what’s happening now in several African countries? In “most” of sub-Saharan Africa, HIV has either stabilized or shows signs of decline, according to a UNAIDS report last year. Falls have been established in Ivory Coast, Kenya and Zimbabwe, it adds. Preventive fieldwork – mobilizing thousands of community-based volunteers from the Red Cross and Red Crescent – seems to be working.

It’s far too early to say HIV in Africa is beaten, but could it have peaked?


A survey of perceptions of Africa among western donors carried out for the International Federation suggests, as a Dutch official put it, the media “are branding Africa in a negative way”.


A monitoring exercise conducted alongside showed most western coverage of Africa is indeed pessimistic, with negative themes making up three quarters of all reports.


Let’s be clear: it’s often journalists who publicize the African crises that humanitarian press officers struggle to bring to light. Most famously the Ethiopian famine in 1984, but more recently the 2005 food-security crisis in Niger, or last year’s disastrous floods which displaced hundreds of thousands of people in nearly 20 countries.


Frequently it is journalists who push on alone into remote parts of drought or flood-stricken countries and send out footage that grabs world attention. Almost always it is local volunteers from the affected communities that are the first and best responders, in place long before humanitarian actors arrive from abroad.


But the commercial news agenda seems loaded against African nations struggling, with increasing success, to lift themselves out of conflict, poverty, disease and protect against natural disaster and the ravages of climate change.


How widely is it known, for example, that Africa recently led the world in the fight to eradicate measles? Deaths fell by 91 per cent between 2000 and 2006, and what the inter-agency Measles Initiative called “spectacular gains” in Africa boosted the average global decline in measles deaths to nearly 70 per cent. This was reported, for sure, but how prominently?

If 100,000 people were evacuated in a flood emergency
in Europe or North America, it would be on the evening news

Statistical conclusions on malaria are trickier, but there’s every reason to believe major inroads are being made in Africa – especially after the distribution of treated nets. At least seven African nations reporting absolute falls in deaths have defied epidemiological gravity on malaria. A recent Red Cross survey in Sierra Leone at the end of a distribution campaign there showed a significant increase in the use of nets. Almost certainly, the former follows the latter.


It’s also a shame that, given the coverage African conflicts get, stories such as the May agreement by nine West African nations on an eight-billion-dollar plan to save the continent’s third-largest river, the Niger, would probably fight for space in the headlines on a busy news day. Over the past two decades there has been a large reduction in the river’s flow due to climate-change impacts, industrial waste and population growth.


And if nearly 100,000 people were successfully evacuated, without compulsion and virtually without loss of life, in a flood emergency that affected an entire region, it would be on the evening news if it happened in Europe or North America. Yet this is exactly what happened in Mozambique at the beginning of the year – unnoticed and almost unreported in the outside world. An extraordinary feat, surely, for a post-conflict state with few resources to draw on other than small boats, handheld VHF radios and Red Cross volunteers.


In reality, of course, this problem is not only Africa’s: disasters are news; disasters averted are not.


But the policymakers from the major western donor nations who took part in our survey feel there may be room for a few more success stories from Africa – quite possibly because they need to demonstrate “impact” to their taxpayers, like an actual drop in malaria deaths, not just humanitarian “inputs”, like nets.


In one area alone, business, Africa is seen to be forging ahead: the now-classic example being the astonishing growth in mobile telephony. According to our research, business news supplies many of the positive “mentions” of Africa in western media outlets. Only a few weeks ago, for example, we read of Mozambique’s plan to phase in gas-powered vehicles to take advantage of its natural reserves.


How ironic that in this of all years, investors looking for safe ports in the financial storm woke up to the fact that 15 sub-Saharan countries have functioning stock markets, reportedly with a combined capitalization – excluding South Africa – of 100 billion US dollars.


And the general consensus was: buy.


It’s time to recognize and highlight the many good news stories from Africa. Believe in Africa.





SOURCE : International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC)


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