20 million are starving. Why is it so hard to pay attention?

Malnourished twins, Borno, Nigeria, November 2016

Save the Children

Malnourished twins, Borno, Nigeria, November 2016

Save the Children

The Global Emergency Response Coalition is trying to draw the American public’s attention to an “unprecedented” hunger crisis. It's an uphill battle.

Your attention pleas. In February, the executive directors of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations Director-General (FAO), the World Food Programme (WFP), and UNICEF officially declared famine in the Greater Unity Region of South Sudan, and said two additional South Sudanese counties were facing a similar threat.

At the time, famine was also looming in Nigeria, Somalia, and Yemen. But by May, conditions in Yemen had accelerated, prompting under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator Stephen O’Brien to address United Nations Security Council with an urgent message. “Yemen has the ignominy of being now the world’s largest food security crisis,” he said, “with more than 17 million people who are food insecure, 6.8 million of whom are one step away from famine.”

Three short months later (or three very long months in the time-warp that is our crowded news cycle), the number of already-weakened souls vulnerable to starvation and death has risen to more than 20 million worldwide—due largely to the persistent and merciless forces of drought, displacement, and conflict.

So why isn’t the fate of more than 20 million of our fellow human beings the lead item in every news break?

Save the Children

Malnourished child, Borno, Nigeria, November 2016.

Leaving aside for a moment the obvious (if also tragically distracting) headline fodder that rockets from our commander-in-chief’s Twitter feed, U.N. declarations are often of little strategic value beyond the symbolic. And speaking from the distance of my editorial dias, I can confirm that there are only so many ways to write the words, “chaos,” “crisis,” and “collapse,” before they begin to resemble one big word that leaves very little room for emotional connection.

Having said that, let’s all internalize the following realities over the course of several slow, deep breaths: “In Yemen, a child under five dies every 10 minutes because of the lack of food and basic resources. In South Sudan, families have been forced to flee their homes and are surviving on water lilies alone while hiding in swamps. In Somalia, teenagers walk for hours just to get enough water to last their families one day. In Nigeria, there have been reports of people eating sand to ward off starvation. Families are dying not only from hunger, but also from diseases such as cholera and measles because they lack clean water and sanitation.”

Those startling human scenes migrated stateside this week, as part of the Global Emergency Response Coalition, a joint appeal launched by the first-ever alliance of eight U.S.-based international relief organizations—CARE, International Medical Corps, International Rescue Committee, Mercy Corps, Oxfam, Plan International, Save the Children, and World Vision—to draw the American public’s attention to what is now being called by aid organizations an “unprecedented” humanitarian crisis unlike any since World War II.

20 million near starvationGlobal Emergency Response Coalition

“Despite its scope and urgency, the crisis has thus far received little media attention in America, therefore failing to register with the U.S. public, “said Lauren Hartnett, humanitarian press officer at Oxfam in an email. “… In addition, maintaining public awareness and raising funds for an ongoing crisis like this is also more challenging than, for example, after a disaster like an earthquake or tsunami. The hunger crisis is complicated—the causes range from drought to ongoing violence and chronic underdevelopment—but the devastating consequences are the same: Children and their families are struggling to survive.”

Formed in 2017 and driven in part by the similarly devastating consequences that resulted from the international community’s 2011 failure to act on another multi-country food shortage—during which more than a quarter of a million people died in Somalia alone—the coalition’s stated goal is to harness its collective power to attract donations to its Hunger Relief Fund.

And because time can’t be spared when it comes to sparing lives, the campaign is aimed at raising money quickly, over the coming two weeks. Corporate partners include Visa, Twitter, PepsiCo and Black Rock, the last two of which will each match funds dollar for dollar, up to $1 million.

That’s what the relief effort looks like from the digisphere. In response to my request for details on individual projects already under way on the ground, here are some snapshots Harnett sent by email:

In Somalia: Mercy Corps is trucking water into drought-affected areas, providing 30,000 liters per day to three displacement camps in Baidoa, as well as distributing food to vulnerable families. In addition, Mercy Corps is working hard to rehabilitate dried-out, neglected and unused infrastructure as well as providing food and livelihood opportunities, such as cash for work, to increase farm production and enhance the ability of communities to handle shocks like drought.

Refugees get food distributionPeter Caton for Mercy Corps

May 2017, Baidoa, Somalia. Refugees attend a Mercy Corps food distribution. Food parcels include rice, flour, oil, beans, sugar, tea and dates.

In Yemen: Oxfam has reached over one million people, providing vulnerable communities with clean water and sanitation services to fight illnesses like cholera and diarrhea, and with cash to buy food locally and providing cash for work programs.

Moayed Al Shaibani-Oxfam

Water relief efforts in Yemen.

In South Sudan: Save the Children manages 61 primary health care facilities with local partners. Our centers treat children with diarrhea, malaria and respiratory infections – which untreated can be life-threatening. Maternal health is supported through prenatal care, labor and delivery services and postnatal care services. We also offer preventive and public health programs including immunizations, education, hygiene and sanitation.

In Nigeria: International Medical Corps provides nutrition and food security programs, as well as family and community health care. They are screening and treating children with malnutrition, delivering hygiene kits and trained health staff and community volunteers to prevent and treat acute malnutrition.”

Displaced women refugees MaidiguriPablo Tosco - Oxfa

A group of displaced women arrive at the camp of Muna garage on the outskirts of Maidiguri in Nigeria. Once they reach the entrance of the field they will be held under a tree for two days to be questioned. More than 20 thousand people have sought refuge in this field.

If leverage is the real currency of humanitarian relief efforts, then tapping into the coalition’s network and resources for even two short weeks may better amplify the urgency with the American public than months of pleading with our leaders at the U.N. ever could.

Either way, Harnett says, “we are all working towards the same goal—to save as many lives as possible.”

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Kate Cox is The Counter's editor. She oversees partnerships and edits investigative, feature, and senior staff reporting. Prior to joining The Counter in 2015, Kate was a freelance reporter for radio and text, focused on health policy and the American age boom. She has written for The Guardian, The Nation, Huffington Post, and others. She holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, where she produced and reported a three-part radio documentary on the nation's first emergency shelter for victims of elder abuse.