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Robust Media: Inevitable in Tackling Food Insecurity

Media Workshop Brief Report: By Tesfaldet Okubayes & Bereket Tsegay

PENHA in partnership with Centre for Development and Emergency Practice (CENDEP) of Oxford Brookes University held media workshop on food security in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) context on 4th December 2013.

The workshop which held in Oxford aimed at devising alternative media strategies in promoting better understanding of food security in SSA through youth-centred participatory approaches. Panellists and participants discussed on people’s current perceptions of food security and the way in which these perceptions are disseminated by the media. The workshop tried to clearly point out the myths and realities of food security in the region. This is mainly to facilitate the communication in encouraging the ambition for positive change—such as promoting and implementing sustainable agriculture techniques and policies—which would be reflected throughout their future careers. Four panellists were invited from both the academia and practitioner side to combine their perspectives and angles on the issue.

Jason Mosley, Research Associate at African Studies Centre, University of Oxford and Associate Fellow at Chatham House was the first presenter. Mosley’s presentation, ‘The politics of translating famine early warning into timely intervention: what role for the media?’, was adapted from a research paper published by Chatham House in November 2012, Translating Early Warning into Early Action: An East Africa Case Study. This work is based on the food security crisis in Ethiopia and Kenya, and famine in Somalia that happened during 2011. He said the 2011 East African food crisis was not a new phenomenon and the early warning information had been available since mid-2010, and that the design of the requisite, timely interventions was already fairly well established. Mosley also noted the level of the food crisis, the government’s capacity to proactively respond to the potential food crisis, the political economy (especially the question of the political influence of the populations/regions most affected by the crisis) as well as the level of security in these three countries is different.

Regarding the role of the media, he discussed the context of both media in donor countries and in the countries of the region.  In donor countries, media has been instrumentalised, mainly by NGOs that are looking to mobilise public awareness of a food security crisis, for the purposes of fundraising.  The media is not necessarily the most effective vector for agencies to influence and inform donor policy.  In three countries examined, the local media environment varies significantly -- in particular in the ability of the media to play a role in as a public forum for policy debate. There is also significant variation in the degree to which media is politicised, and trusted. Only in Kenya is the media sufficiently free to have been able to be instrumentalised in a manner consistent with donor country experience: Mosley gave the example of the Kenyan Red Cross Society and Safaricom campaign, ‘Kenyans for Kenya’. In neither Ethiopia nor Somalia does the media provide the forum for the open discussion of public policy.

Zeremariam Fre, Lecturer, Development Planning Unit at University College of London (UCL) was the second panellist. He presented a paper on ‘Food Systems in the Context of Sub-Saharan Africa: The Relevance of Media’. Fre first gave a context where the regional categorisation of Africa should be based. He said it is better to see the ill-defined categorisation of Sub-Saharan Africa in micro-cosm rather than as one geographical region. Rather better to put it into six distinct ecological regions with diversified cultures, economies, livelihood systems but also connected. Speaking about the Horn of Africa, Fre said it is a boiling region where multiple causes have been bringing the state of food insecurity including ‘war on terror’, internal conflicts, cross-border conflicts, the issue of piracy, marginalisation of some groups of the society, international actors intervention, unplanned urbanisation, land-grabbing, etc. The overall political fragility causes food insecure communities where as the Diaspora is trying to fill in the gap by remitting to their kinships. Such context doesn’t allow for free media and social movements which curbs the media from playing key role.  

Looking at the argo-ecology, the sustainable diversity of food systems and ecological zones, and strong link among economic niches can be taken as positive sides. However, the duplication of system (like Green Revolution) is perpetuating poverty and ecological degradation. Land-grabbing including from the so called ‘South’ and recent crisis – food, financial, fuel – can have both short and long term negative impacts on the communities’ food systems. In such situations media can play great role through promoting sustainable agricultural policies and practices, ecological diversity and democratisation of food systems. Thus, empowering the media and citizens are needed rather than that of government and unfair corporations. Moreover, the strengthening of multi-scale networks and media can play the role of advocacy on global issues including land-grabbing.  

The third presenter was Angela Raven Roberts (PhD), Research Fellow at International Gender Studies Centre, University of Oxford. Roberts put her presentation as ‘Food Security Regime Governance: Institutions, Policy Actors and Constructive Media’. She emphasised on embedding the notion of food security in the political context of famine. Food security according to her requires the synergy of all actors, including the international as well as local institutional and policy systems which include the governments, donors, NGOs and the media. The history of food crisis goes back to centuries which happened not only in the context of Africa but also Asia such of the China famine.

To tackle the issue, there must be a way to stop this. One of the key advantages is local communities’ indigenous knowledge on Early Warning System (EWS) in responding to the food crisis. They can predict whether famine is coming or not based on their local climate change knowledge. The presence of risk reduction system on arid and semi-arid regions is also a plus. Thus, during such triggering points there should be the right approach in place to make timely response.

Roberts argues food crisis has a regional impact which doesn’t happen only in few pockets. It can go beyond borders and across climatic belts. Thus, the need for regional intervention is required in sharing triggering information, taking timely actions to deter the problem from spreading. She said also lessons learnt from the past are enough. Thus, harmony of operational activities is needed to avoid taking uncoordinated action as that happened in Haiti recently. The problem of conveying food crisis with bad images is not alone with the media but also with the NGOs as since decades they are using the same image of slime child who is starving as a means to collect money which contributed towards developing wrong stereotype among the actors as well as the general public/tax payers. Thus, the accountability mechanism and awareness approached should be strengthened to ensure the value added of public contribution towards the food issue in Africa. She strongly emphasised also depriving the population from food should be recognised as ‘a war crime’. Finally, she said because of the social media ‘everyone is a journalist’ and this can bring many positive stories of food in Africa and also to have alternative source of information for policy makers rather than highly depending only mainstream media.

At the beginning of the workshop, Bereket Tsegay, Programme Development Manager at PENHA gave his presentation on the ‘Food We Want Project and its cause for action’. Tsegay briefed the complexness of the global food system and its linkages with the issue of food availability or access, conflict of interests and power struggle among the communities and also global actors on food, etc. He said globally about 80% of the food we eat is being produced by the smallholder farmers, but he asked saying ‘do they have equivalent saying power in determining the food price? No’. The food insecurity challenge is there and looking at the media there is also the demand side problems that emanates from the media consumers – ‘bad news hypothesis’. This is partly contributing to misrepresentation of the food security facts and realities on the SSA countries.

During the two discussion session of the day, participants raised the issue of using food crisis as a strategy to control the general population or some sectors/minority groups/opposition regions, potential role of social media, role of local media, etc. The event was attended by about 20 people mainly university students who are practitioners and have good experience on development issues, media and also sustainable agriculture.  


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