Monday, July 5, 2010

What's in a Name?

So apparently we're in danger of having a famine in Niger. But what exactly is a famine? Depends on who you ask, apparently.

"There is no clear boundary or definition [of a famine]," said Christopher Barrett, a food aid expert who teaches development economics at Cornell University, in the US.

"Clearly, 1984 in Ethiopia was a famine [a million people died and an estimated eight million were on food aid]; equally clearly, 2009 in the United States was not [the US Department of Agriculture said on average 33.7 million Americans received food vouchers each month in 2009, the highest number ever].

Barrett said the typical explanation of a famine was "greater than usual mortality that is caused by insufficient availability of or access to food, whether directly due to starvation or far more commonly, indirectly, due to disease or injury associated with severe under-nutrition."

Stephen Devereux, author of Theories of Famine, a definitive reference book on the subject, noted that dictionary definitions such as "extreme scarcity of food" described a "few symptoms of famine" and selected some factors to "suggest causes", but failed to provide a "comprehensive and concise" definition.

"A good working definition of famine must describe a subsistence crisis afflicting particular groups of people within a bounded region over a specified period of time," he wrote.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of researchers, academics and humanitarian aid workers have tried defining it. Devereux quoted an academic as saying that "Famine is like insanity: hard to define, but glaring enough when recognized."

Let's take this even further: How would media people or aid agencies define 'war'? 'conflict'? 'instability'? 'Religious conflict'? Nobody will ever see the tea party protests against the US government and gun-totting rallies close to the National Mall in DC and conclude that the whole of America is unsafe for travel. That is because it will be cast in its proper light in the US and Western media. I doubt such allowances would be given if the same happened in an African country. It'll be tagged as 'political instability' and the country will be deemed unsafe. My more cynical friends like to say that media loves stark language for clicks on their stories, and aid agencies love such stark language to generate attention to their cause. Perhaps that is the intention in some cases, but I've never been one for conspiracy theories, especially since I have met people who work at much-maligned the World Bank and much-maligned NGOs who truly believe in their work and are not monsters. Rather, I will say that putting situations in their proper context and having a half-baked understanding of history will always lead one to oversimplification. A real shame, really, because what we call things is important, and we should be especially careful when talking about places our audience knows little about.

Back to the famine in Niger, this is not to be deliberately obtuse. Of course when you see enough skeletal-looking children with flies in their eyes you might have an inkling as to whether or not a food scarcity is afoot. But I submit that we should think carefully what we name things, yes, even with famines. Improperly characterizing things can get in the way of what is truly needed to alleviate the situation. It may paint a pathetic picture that would stir hearts, but it will also rob the people on whom the camera focuses of any agency to help their situation.

I can't deny it though. Stark characterization often helps draw attention to an issue, isn't it? And attention translates to aid dollars for cash-strapped aid organizations, many of whom truly want to do their work for the betterment of people, isn't it?

And I said I wouldn't play cynic.

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