x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Success can be an impediment to aid

Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies launch Believe in Africa initiative in bid for great financial support for and media coverage of achievements.

People travel the main road linking the north and south of Mozambique during this year's floods.
People travel the main road linking the north and south of Mozambique during this year's floods.

JOHANNESBURG // When the vast Zambezi River burst its banks this year, enormous swathes of Mozambique, through which its lower reaches pass before it empties into the Indian Ocean, were flooded. The waters reached even higher than in the spectacular inundations of 2000 and about 60,000 families were forced to leave their homes, given shelter and emergency supplies, then helped to return when the floods finally receded. The entire operation took months, but the disaster barely figured on the international news agenda. There were no directly attributable confirmed deaths and for media accustomed to the staggering images of the 2000 floods, when about 800 people were killed and, most memorably, Sofia Pedro gave birth in a tree before she and her baby son were plucked to safety by a helicopter, it simply did not compare. "I was a little bit disappointed" with the coverage, said Fernanda Teixeira, secretary general of the Mozambique Red Cross, which played a major role in the evacuation and relief effort. "It worked very well; people were happy. We always work in disaster situations because Mozambique is always a country prone to disasters. Really, all the institutions are taking disaster preparations very seriously. We started working much before the floods, with mobilisation of people to follow the alert system. We also did training of volunteers and local communities in the affected areas." Success stories, though, will always struggle in the competition for space on news outlets. "It was mainly Mozambican institutions," Mrs Teixeira said. "We didn't launch an international appeal from our side; we decided to trust our own capacity and we just requested support for very specific things. "Maybe external organisations or international organisations, they want to be there and be seen and if the work is just done by the locals it's not calling for so much attention. Everyone likes a certain visibility and for organisations that are living from donations this is very important. They want their own visibility as they need also to satisfy their public and raise their funds. "My feeling is there is a need to show more what's going on by local people. If you show through the media good examples of good work this could be replicated. It can make people feel they are doing well and it can make a huge difference. "If people hear only bad things about themselves they start to believe in that." At its quadrennial Pan-African Conference in Johannesburg this week, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies launched an initiative, Believe in Africa, seeking greater coverage of good news from the world's poorest continent. It surveyed six positive terms - peace, growth, progress, prosperity, entrepreneurship and business - and five negative terms - war, poverty, HIV, crisis and corruption - in articles on Africa from leading newspapers and news magazines in donor countries since 2006. The negative terms appeared 1,932 times compared with 675 for the positive ones and an accompanying series of interviews with western policymakers involved in aid and development "perceived a strong degree of bias in media portrayals of Africa", it said. A Dutch respondent told the organisation the media "are branding Africa in a negative way". But the reality is that many of the world's worst continuing crises are in Africa, from the mass killings and displacements in Darfur, to chronic food insecurity across swathes of the continent and the devastating effect of the HIV/Aids epidemic. "Without peace and stability there is little prospect of development and poverty reduction," a Swedish official told the organisation. Nonetheless, aid agencies themselves, particularly international ones, are no strangers to publicising disasters in the search for funding and backing for their activities. On occasion it is media coverage that triggers the humanitarian response, the most notable example being the Ethiopian famine of 1984. At the time of the Mozambique floods a flurry of press releases and briefings went out warning of the prospect of imminent disaster on a huge scale - despite the absence of large-scale fatalities. "As humanitarians appealing to donors we face essentially the same dilemma as journalists," said Bekele Geleta, the Ethiopian-born secretary general of the International Federation. "It's our duty to bring hidden humanitarian crises to light and advocate on behalf of Africans who may lack food and decent health care. "Everyone knows that news - drama and controversy - tends to be bad news the world over. We must be realistic, a sudden outbreak of fighting and an exodus of refugees is always going to be more newsworthy than a conflict fizzling out over weeks or months while refugees trickle home." Juan Manuel Suarez del Toro, the organisation's president, admitted openly: "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." sberger@thenational.ae