How to report on natural disasters in poor countries
I’ll admit it, I’m a news junkie. Ten or so times a day I’ll check the news headlines, looking for anything new that’s relevant to me. As someone whose job it is to communicate extreme poverty that means looking out for any news from the world’s poorest countries (or as the media tend to call it, “Africa” or “Asia”).
After several years doing this, I’ve discovered that the media has four different stories that they file on poor countries – corruption, conflict, crazy and catastrophe. Each hook has its merits and drawbacks, but recently, stories about large-scale natural disasters have started to follow a rather unhelpful pattern, which goes something like this…
Day 1: We have reports of a massive disaster in Equatorial Kundu (cue graphic showing location of country on a map). Hundreds, thousands or maybe even tens of thousands of (non-white) people are feared dead. We also have unconfirmed reports that several of “our” (white) citizens may have been involved.
Day 2: It’s a lot worse than we thought. The government of Equatorial Kundu have urgently asked for help from the international community. The Prime Minister/President (of developed nation) said today that “we” stand in solidarity with the people of Equatorial Kundu, and will provide all possible assistance. Oxfam and other aid agencies have launched an appeal for the victims of this disaster, which you can give to on this number….. The death toll is expected to climb dramatically in the coming days, and we can now confirm that at least one of our own nationals has died.
Day 3: We can take you now via a phone link to our journalist, who has just landed in Equatorial Kundu… “It’s a scene of total devastation here, I’ve never seen anything like it. The local government has been overwhelmed, and as aid agencies arrive, the local people are desperate for help. As I picked through the ruins, I met people who had lost their whole families.”
Day 4: Our reporter on the ground in Equatorial Kundu reports: “A day after I arrive, I’m shocked at the magnitude of this disaster. But, amidst the tragedy, there are amazing stories of hope, people being pulled from the rubble by family members who had searched for days.“
“I’m here with a representative from an aid agency.” (pan to aid worker) “The people of Equatorial Kundu urgently need your help. We have launched an appeal to provide for urgently needed food, water and shelter for these people. It will take months, years…” (cut off by journalist) “Thanks, back to you in the studio.”
Day 5: Tonight we take you live to Equatorial Kundu, where serious questions are being asked about aid efforts. “Five days after this country was changed forever, aid is nowhere to be seen. The first supplies have arrived, but aid agencies have failed to reach people on the ground.”
Day 6: Miracle survival stories. “Almost a week after the disaster, and amidst ongoing claims that aid agencies are failing to respond, tonight we bring you a story of hope. In the last 24 hours, we’ve seen people pulled from the rubble, still alive.” (cut to dramatic rescue footage, emotional relatives crying in relief)
Day 7: “Aid has finally started to reach victims of the Kundu disaster, but there are increasing concerns about disease and civil disorder. Tens of thousands of people made homeless by the disaster are tonight sheltering under tents provided by relief efforts. A huge logistical effort is underway to provide food, water and shelter for them. But, as bodies continue to rot under the rubble, health experts fear a major outbreak of cholera. And, there are reports of civil disorder as people overwhelm the meagre aid supplies, and gangs loot deserted shops.”
Then, the disaster starts to fall away from the headlines for a few days, there being no miracles to report. Until, suddenly…
Around day 10: Tonight we bring you a special report from the countryside of Equatorial Kundu. “Here, a few hours outside of the capital, it’s like the disaster struck yesterday. 10 days after the world’s attention was so tragically focused on this country, I can report the shocking fact that aid efforts have completely failed to reach this community. Despite the huge sums of money raised for relief efforts, locals tell me that they’ve received no aid. For them, it’s too little, too late.”
Stories will appear with decreasing frequency in the following weeks, with notable spikes at the one, three and six month marks. All of these stories will be punctuated by the theme, “very little has changed here. Thousands still live in emergency tents and disease remains a daily threat. Aid agencies say the recovery will take longer, but the international community is growing impatient that aid efforts have been slow and piecemeal.”
This is the narrative that played out many times before, notably, with examples of coverage from the BBC for Haiti earthquake or the Pakistan floods. Along with the fictional example above, these show how a series of factually correct stories add up to a narrative with three negative consequences.
Aid efforts are always portrayed as too slow / ineffective. Delivering aid in disaster areas is hard. Even though much of the criticism levelled at aid efforts during disasters is warranted, doing this through the media means that the public are bombarded with inconsistent messages. On the one hand, we’re being urged to give, yet at the same time, we’re being told that our donations aren’t making a difference, and that aid organisations are incompetent. The result –rising levels of public concern about aid effectiveness, and the belief that aid doesn’t work.
People in disaster are only ever shown as victims or criminals. Given how seldom many people in developed nations actually encounter people in poor countries, we tend to generalise from the images that we see in the media. The consequence of media coverage of disasters is that we implicitly feel that all people in poor countries must be like the victims or criminals that we see in reports. That frames our broader response to people in poverty, reinforcing the idea that we need to ‘save’ these people – from disasters and themselves.
Related to this, coverage of disasters almost never mentions local efforts to respond. Local charities, local government and local people are nowhere to be seen in these reports. The history, politics, economy, geography and culture of a country becomes irrelevant as it’s reduced to an icon of suffering. By missing the good and bad of a country, the message becomes one of us (rich, western) needing to go in and ‘fix’ these countries.
The impact of all of this is that we become desensitised to the magnitude and human tragedy of these disasters. We come to see them as just part of a broader narrative of hopelessness and incompetence in “Africa” and “Asia,” and we’re left with the impression that there’s nothing we can do to help.
But, there’s much that we can do to help. It starts with supporting organisations who work on disaster preparedness, so communities are better able to manage if things do go wrong. It’s about supporting broader efforts to enable good governance and fight corruption, so that if disasters do happen, the local government is trusted and equipped to respond. And, it’s about taking the news with a rather large grain of salt.