30 June 2017: Social media commentary on the East Africa food crisis

An investigation into social media comments posted on news reports on the devastating food crisis affecting 20 million across the East and Central Africa has uncovered eight common negative attitudes to the emergency. 

The Plan International Australia report, Challenging Negative Attitudes About the Food Crisis in East Africa, has been released today. 

Unity State, in South Sudan, was famine-declared by the United Nations on 20 February this year. This means two adults or four children out of 10,000 died from starvation every day. Although the famine in Unity State has now been declared over, 1.7 million in the greater region are suffering ‘famine-like conditions’.  

These conditions are being echoed in neighbouring countries, with grave concerns other states in South Sudan, Nigeria, Yemen, and Somalia may soon be famine-declared. Around 20 million people across East Africa are suffering hunger. 

In fact, the overall number of food insecure people in South Sudan has actually grown to 6 million, 50 per cent of the population.

As more journalists report on the deteriorating crisis, Plan International Australia has examined the public perception of the disaster. Hundreds of comments left on a series of news reports posted on the Facebook pages of national and international news outlets from March to June were examined. Eight main themes emerged (listed from most common to least):  

1. Overpopulation is the cause of the famine. 
2. Domestic issues are more important than providing aid to other countries.
3. The money never arrives to those who need it.
4. Famine is always happening in Africa.
5. People affected by famine deserve it.
6. Why give money when people in the developing world should simply help themselves?
7. Providing humanitarian aid indentures people into poverty.
8. Islam is to blame for the crisis.

Plan International Australia’s CEO Ian Wishart, who worked on the front line of the humanitarian response to the Ethiopian famine in 1983 and Somalia in 1991, says compassion fatigue and negative views of the crisis are not harmless and can hinder the ability for agencies to respond. 

“We’re currently responding to a very serious crisis in the Eastern part of Africa that may rival the terrible 1983 Ethiopian famine in scale and severity, yet apathy and negativity about this emergency is widespread,” Mr Wishart. 

 “Negative attitudes about famine aren’t usually driven by a sense of animosity towards other people, but rather misunderstanding the complexities of famine and humanitarian aid. Plan is on the ground right now in South Sudan assisting thousands of children and their parents who are unwittingly caught up in this disaster, so we feel compelled to correct the record. 

“By far the most prevalent attitude we found is that over population is the reason for this hunger crisis. We know this simply isn’t true. In an incredibly dangerous part of the world where conflict has cost thousands of lives, farmers caught in the cross-fire have been driven from their land, shutting down the food supply system. 

“There is also a pervasive perception that people in crisis are passive recipients of aid looking for a handout. This is an unfair stereotype. The resilience and fortitude of people caught up in famine to cope in unthinkable circumstances is remarkable. They do everything they can to help themselves and their families in very difficult conditions. 

Mr Wishart added it was heartening to discover the media was not driving the negativity and in fact, coverage of the crisis had been overwhelmingly sensitive. 

“We were interested to explore where these attitudes come from. As part of this research, we put 100 international and Australian news reports under the microscope and found no evidence of the negative sentiment we’re seeing on social media.  

“We conclude that negativity around this crisis stems from incorrect stereotypes about Africa and very occasionally, unkindness. 

“On the flip side, thousands of kind Australians have already donated to famine appeals. We hope this report will help people who care about this crisis to talk about it with their friends, family and colleagues in an approachable and non-judgemental way.

“Sometimes a simple explanation is all it takes to challenge attitudes. All we ask is for those who are cynical about this crisis to keep an open mind and consider a different view.”

Donate to Plan’s East Africa appeal visit www.plan.org.au or call 13 PLAN (13 7526)

Facts and figures from South Sudan

  • South Sudan is no longer classified as being in famine, but 45,000 people in Jonglei and Unity states are expected to remain in famine-like conditions. This compares to 100,000 people in famine conditions when famine was declared in February.
  • 25,000 of the people experiencing famine-like conditions are in Jonglei state.
  • 1.7 million people are facing emergency levels of food insecurity (IPC Phase 4) – one step below famine on the IPC scale.
  • An estimated 6 million people, half the population, are expected to be in a "crisis, emergency or catastrophe situation" in June/July, up from 5.5 million in May and 4.9 million in February.
  • Armed conflict has resulted in massive population displacement, disruptions to people’s livelihoods, trade and access to humanitarian assistance, which remains people’s main source of food in conflict areas.
  • Acute malnutrition remains a major public health emergency in several parts of South Sudan. Evidence shows that the Global Acute Malnutrition prevalence is above the WHO emergency threshold of 15 per cent in Duk county of Jonglei State.
  • Acute malnutrition levels are expected to deteriorate even further as the peak lean season approaches in July 2017, especially in Mayendit, Aweil North, and Ayod counties, which are projected to experience extremely critical levels of acute malnutrition.