PENHA in partnership with Centre for Development and Emergency Practice (CENDEP) of Oxford Brookes University held media workshop on food security in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) context on 4th December 2013.

The workshop which held in Oxford aimed at devising alternative media strategies in promoting better understanding of food security in SSA through youth-centred participatory approaches. Panellists and participants discussed on people’s current perceptions of food security and the way in which these perceptions are disseminated by the media. The workshop tried to clearly point out the myths and realities of food security in the region. This is mainly to facilitate the communication in encouraging the ambition for positive change—such as promoting and implementing sustainable agriculture techniques and policies—which would be reflected throughout their future careers. Four panellists were invited from both the academia and practitioner side to combine their perspectives and angles on the issue.

Jason Mosley, Research Associate at African Studies Centre, University of Oxford and Associate Fellow at Chatham House was the first presenter. Mosley’s presentation, ‘The politics of translating famine early warning into timely intervention: what role for the media?’ was adapted from a research paper published by Chatham House in November 2012, Translating Early Warning into Early Action: An East Africa Case Study. This work is based on the food security crisis in Ethiopia and Kenya, and famine in Somalia that happened during 2011. He said the 2011 East African food crisis was not a new phenomenon and the early warning information had been available since mid-2010, and that the design of the requisite, timely interventions was already fairly well established. Mosley also noted the level of the food crisis, the government’s capacity to proactively respond to the potential food crisis, the political economy (especially the question of the political influence of the populations/regions most affected by the crisis) as well as the level of security in these three countries is different.

Regarding the role of the media, he discussed the context of both media in donor countries and in the countries of the region.  In donor countries, media has been instrumentalised, mainly by NGOs that are looking to mobilise public awareness of a food security crisis, for the purposes of fundraising.  The media is not necessarily the most effective vector for agencies to influence and inform donor policy.  In three countries examined, the local media environment varies significantly -- in particular in the ability of the media to play a role in as a public forum for policy debate. There is also significant variation in the degree to which media is politicised, and trusted. Only in Kenya is the media sufficiently free to have been able to be instrumentalised in a manner consistent with donor country experience: Mosley gave the example of the Kenyan Red Cross Society and Safaricom campaign, ‘Kenyans for Kenya’. In neither Ethiopia nor Somalia does the media provide the forum for the open discussion of public policy.

Zeremariam Fre, Lecturer, Development Planning Unit at University College of London (UCL) was the second panellist. He presented a paper on ‘Food Systems in the Context of Sub-Saharan Africa: The Relevance of Media’. Fre first gave a context where the regional categorisation of Africa should be based. He said it is better to see the ill-defined categorisation of Sub-Saharan Africa in micro-cosm rather than as one geographical region. Rather better to put it into six distinct ecological regions with diversified cultures, economies, livelihood systems but also connected. Speaking about the Horn of Africa, Fre said it is a boiling region where multiple causes have been bringing the state of food insecurity including ‘war on terror’, internal conflicts, cross-border conflicts, the issue of piracy, marginalisation of some groups of the society, international actors intervention, unplanned urbanisation, land-grabbing, etc. The overall political fragility causes food insecure communities where as the Diaspora is trying to fill in the gap by remitting to their kinships. Such context doesn’t allow for free media and social movements which curbs the media from playing key role.  

Looking at the argo-ecology, the sustainable diversity of food systems and ecological zones, and strong link among economic niches can be taken as positive sides. However, the duplication of system (like Green Revolution) is perpetuating poverty and ecological degradation. Land-grabbing including from the so called ‘South’ and recent crisis – food, financial, fuel – can have both short and long term negative impacts on the communities’ food systems. In such situations media can play great role through promoting sustainable agricultural policies and practices, ecological diversity and democratisation of food systems. Thus, empowering the media and citizens are needed rather than that of government and unfair corporations. Moreover, the strengthening of multi-scale networks and media can play the role of advocacy on global issues including land-grabbing.  

The third presenter was Angela Raven-Roberts (PhD), Visiting Research Fellow at International Gender Studies Centre, University of Oxford. Under the title ‘Food Security Regimes: Governance, Institutions, Policy Actors and Constructive Media’ she focused on the ways in which food security issues should be on embedded in the overall political and social context of governance and society. Food security according to her requires the synergy of all actors, including the international as well as local institutional and policy systems which include the governments, donors, NGOs and the media. She reminded participants of the notion of establishing a ‘political contract’ against famine. i.e that all governments and stakeholders should be committed to and held accountable to prevent, mitigate and respond to food security/famine crises and its causes.  She reminded the audience that many lessons have been learnt on how to deal with the consequences of food security crises, how they have affected communities and what factors have built up to cause livelihood /food insecurity.

The history of food crises and ways in which these crises have been used politically to deny people access goes back centuries and have happened not only in the context of Africa but also in other regions such as Asia and Central Europe with China North Korea and Russia being the most notorious of examples.

To tackle the issue, many developments have taken place to both reduce the risks as well as provide Early warning and response systems. Governments and all agencies across the world have signed up to many declarations at regional and international level to fine tune ways for preventing food insecurity as well as establishing indicators to warn of the slow onset of many factors which can combine to cause problems. One example is the way in which local communities’ indigenous knowledge and warning indicators can be linked to national and International on Early Warning Systems (EWS) to predict the onset of a crisis and develop appropriate and timely responses. Developments in information technology and social media are also playing a key part in the exchange of vital information such as market prices as well as early warning and innovative techniques for cropping or livestock health.

Roberts argued food crisis has a regional impact and does often not happen in few pockets. It can go beyond borders and across climatic belts. Thus, the need for regional approach is required in sharing information and taking timely actions to deter the problem from spreading. She also emphasized that the media has a strong role to play in educating the public locally as well as internationally to reveal the real causes of food insecurity and what communities and governments are doing about it. The media should also refrain from replicating images of  ‘victims’ and using the ‘starving nameless babies’ pictures that they keep doing every time there is a crisis, an image that many NGOs themselves still persist in conveying despite many international conferences and agreements and calls not to do this. 

The media has also a role to play in educating the public in general on the politics of food, land usage and tenure, costs and trade agreements and all aspects of food production and the ways in which nutrition and health across the globe is often compromised by certain actions and approaches of agri business and the food industry.  The media is a powerful tool to enhance accountability and new innovations such as social media, smart phones etc are making all citizens ‘street journalists” and can thus strengthen citizen knowledge and accountability. She ended by strongly supporting the notion being developed in many quarters that depriving the population of food and targeting community livelihood and agricultural systems in times of conflict should be recognised as ‘a war crime’.

At the beginning of the workshop, Bereket Tsegay, Programme Development Manager at PENHA gave his presentation on the ‘Food We Want Project and its cause for action’. Tsegay briefed the complexness of the global food system and its linkages with the issue of food availability or access, conflict of interests and power struggle among the communities and also global actors on food, etc. He said globally about 80% of the food we eat is being produced by the smallholder farmers, but he asked saying ‘do they have equivalent saying power in determining the food price? No’. The food insecurity challenge is there and looking at the media there is also the demand side problems that emanates from the media consumers – ‘bad news hypothesis’. This is partly contributing to misrepresentation of the food security facts and realities on the SSA countries.

During the two discussion session of the day, participants raised the issue of using food crisis as a strategy to control the general population or some sectors/minority groups/opposition regions, potential role of social media, role of local media, etc. The event was attended by about 20 people mainly university students who are practitioners and have good experience on development issues, media and also sustainable agriculture.  

Picture by: Joseph Adamson (AIL TV)