By Alan Heil Jr.
The United Nations calls it the worst humanitarian crisis since 1945. Largely ignored on world media: the threat that about 20 million people in four African countries, in addition to millions in Yemen, will starve to death, among them millions of children. Perhaps no news organization has focused so intensively on their desperate plight as a team of reporters and new media specialists at the Voice of America, the U.S. funded network that reaches the world in 47 languages via TV, radio, social media and online services.
Hunger Across Africa is VOA’s most successful, multimedia team project in 2017, its 75th year. A trio of Voice Africa Division journalists were winners of the prestigious Cowan Award. The award was established by the family of VOA’s 22nd director Geoff Cowan, who led the Voice from 1994-1996. It aimed to stimulate ambitious, exclusive humanitarian programming. For more than two decades it has fulfilled Mr. Cowan’s dream of in-depth original reporting, and that of his late father Lou Cowan, the 2nd VOA director from 1943-1945 during World War II.
The three awards recipients in 2017 are senior editor-producer and writer Ms. Salem Fedaku of the Voice’s Africa Division and two of its on-scene field reporters, Abdul Aziz Osman and Nicolas Pinault. Their datelines included the drought-stricken areas of Niger, Nigeria, Somalia, Somaliland, and civil war plagued South Sudan. They reported on or visited other famine-threatened countries such as Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Kenya, and Senegal.
As the current VOA director, Amanda Bennett, put it: “This was an amazing team effort. More than 100 original reports, dozens of videos, radio broadcasts, and panel discussions have been produced on numerous platforms along with many additional reports in 15 languages within the Africa Division.”
A FOOD CRISIS OVERVIEW
The threat of famine is not a new phenomenon in an arid stretch of desert across four time zones in sub-Sahara Africa, from the Indian to Atlantic Oceans. Salem Fedaku’s report June 16once again captured the essence of a regrettably frequent crisis:
“In 2003, Roger Thurow was a journalist assigned to cover a looming famine in Ethiopia. Upon arriving in the country, he was given a warning by a World Food Program worker who told him that ‘looking into the eyes of someone dying of hunger becomes a disease of the soul’.”
Abdul Aziz Osman on April 13 visited a refugee camp near Mogadishu, Somalia. In his words: “We spoke with displaced parents whose children starved to death before their very eyes as they walked for days to find food.” Mr. Osman filed a number of on-scene reports from Somaliland and Puntland in the northern part of Somalia as well as civil-war torn South Sudan.
Nicolas Pinault on March 4 reported from a remote drought-stricken desert location in northern Niger on food shortages caused by a mass influx of people fleeing Boko Haram terrorists in neighboring Nigeria: “The asphalt on the highways here is boiling hot… The food situation is at best precarious. Last year, the United Nations estimated that the region’s harvest would not meet local needs, falling short by 100,000 tons of cereals. Many refugees,” he added, “would like to return to their homes, but chances seem remote. Boko Haram is still active along the Komadugu Yobe River, the natural border between Niger and Nigeria”.
Is enough international assistance in sight for meeting the famine threatening the 20 million people Africa-wide and in famine-riddled Yemen across the Red Sea from Somalia? Hardly. In addition to drought, spreading southward into sub-Sahara Africa beyond the desert, civil wars or factional fighting in Somalia, South Sudan, and Boko Haram atrocities in northeast Nigeria have caused thousands of people to flee conflicts in their once quiet neighborhoods.
As part of Hunger Across Africa, VOA News Center correspondents in Washington, Nairobi, Geneva, and the United Nations also have outlined the urgent need for funding of this complex humanitarian crisis. The U.N., as early as last February estimated the total cost of emergency famine relief for Africa and Yemen at $6.1 billion. About a third of that amount, $2.2 billion, has been pledged.
On July 11, according to Hunger Across Africa reporters, the U.S. said it will provide $639 million to the effort in Africa. On August 3, the Trump administration pledged an additional $169 million, despite anticipated substantial cuts in the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development. Because of uncertainties the crisis will soon end, much remains to be pledged by all of the international community.
AN ABRIDGED COWAN AWARDS HISTORY
The award happens to be neatly framed over time, beginning with an award to VOA’s distinguished foreign correspondent Scott Stearns, who received the humanitarian award in 1998 for — guess what? — a radio series about hunger and conflict in South Sudan.
In 2001, Rashmi Shukla of VOA’s Hindi Service worked with field reporters to provide in-depth reporting of the dowry crisis in India and how it has crippled millions of lives. In 2004, William Chen of the Chinese Branch learned about a faulty sterilization program that attracted donors to help HIV-AIDS victims in Hunan Province. A third of the province’s HIV/AIDs victims were given contaminated blood. Because of VOA’s large Mandarin-speaking audience, authorities were forced to act — potentially saving many citizens’ lives.
In 2004, Patricia Nunan, then VOA’s New Delhi correspondent was among winners of the Cowan award. She had worked for three months to produce a documentary featuring the firsthand experiences of Indian migrants who were misled into taking life-threatening jobs in Iraq.
THE 2017 COWAN AWARD, A MULTIMEDIA FIRST
As Hunger Across Africa leaders put it: “We saw an opportunity to do a better job in telling the story holistically. We experimented with a new approach: a customed-designed, standalone website with video and data storytelling that give depth and context to our day-to-day reporting since the project was initiated a few months ago. The aim: to help website readers understand the crisis based on root causes, responses and solutions.”
The website has custom maps of all 29 affected African countries, a country profiles infographic, a video that illustrates the severity of the crisis and an interactive map of current food insecurity levels based on data from the Famine Early Warning Systems Network.
Interactive conversations with consumers — TV, radio and online — are the most conspicuous element in 2017 of a reformed, forward-looking VOA. People-to-people communications is key. Hopefully, Facebook relays of products like Hunger Across Africa will improve conditions for the famine-threatened and underscore the urgency of helping them. On August 26, a Boko Haram defector Bana Umar was interviewed by VOA Hausa reporter Haruna Dauda in Maidurguri, Nigeria.
“Many of us listened to radio stations like BBC and VOA,” Bana Umar — now free — recalled. “I listened to these radio stations frequently. When I laid down to sleep I would be thinking of what I heard. I realized that all our activities (in Boko Haram) were evil. We killed. We stole. We dispossessed people of their properties in the name of religion. But what were we doing is not religion. Finally, I got fed up with the group and fled.”
As a 36-year veteran of the Voice of America (VOA), Alan Heil traveled to more than 40 countries a foreign correspondent in the Middle East, and later as director of News and Current Affairs, deputy director of programs, and deputy director of the nation’s largest publicly-funded overseas multimedia network. Today, VOA reaches more than 275 million people around the world each week via radio, television and online media. Read More