09 November 2012

Nigeria's Ignored Floods and Western Media's Role

Flooding across Nigeria since July has displaced over 2 million people. Some are calling it the worst flooding the country has seen in half a century. It is a story that is only now beginning to get some press attention following the new estimates regarding the number of people displaced and the 363 deaths attributed to the floods.

Before the data became available, John Campbell lamented the lack of media coverage in the Council for Foreign Relations blog. "It baffles me that the Western media is paying so little attention to the flooding in Nigeria. There are dramatic aerial photographs of the flooding in the Delta, and affected areas spread as far afield as Kano and Kogi states in northern and central Nigeria," begins Campbell.

He proceeds to call out Oxfam and the Red Cross and Red Crescent for not making enough noise about the problem. IRIN reported in early October that Oxfam was seeking $850,000 to respond to the floods. Though it appears that singling out Oxfam may miss the mark. 

“Never before has there been a disaster of this scale or magnitude,” said Oxfam’s deputy regional humanitarian coordinator in Nigeria, Dierdre McArdle to IRIN today. “Finding partners who have the capacity to deal with it is challenging.”

McArdle proceeds to say that problems include the scale of the flooding, a lack of information and a lack of technical knowledge to respond. Earlier estimates of the people displaced by the flooding were under 1 million. The jump to 2.1 million reflects the time it took to properly assess the situation and come up with a reasonable estimate regarding the number of people affected by the floods.

A coordinated appeal from Oxfam, Nigeria's National Emergency Management Authority (NEMA) and the UN requires $38 million to relief and recovery services in 14 states. According to a UNICEF official, NEMA had established plans to respond to disasters that displace 500,000 people, only a quarter of the number of people displaced by the current floods.

The emerging information regarding the challenges to respond helps to explain the lack of noise from NGOs. The problem was easily apparent, but it is possible that organizations were reluctant to react too quickly without the proper information. Campbell criticized the media, but it should come as no surprise that the story did not pick up any steam until the 2 million number was determined.

Part of the problem for media in the story is connected to the response by the NGOs. A severe lack of data and information makes it hard for the NGOs to communicate the scale of the problem to media outlets and garner interest on the story. That is only compounded by a small amount of space that is given to international reporting and a lack of staff reporters in sub-Saharan Africa.

The issue is not Nigeria itself or really the story as much as it is a pattern of a lack of Western media reporting on the continent. Little was reported in regards to the Sahel crisis. It took a famine declaration to get any attention to the Horn of Africa this year and northern Mali is all but off the map save a few mentions from Mitt Romney when talking about al Qaeda.

Campbell is on to a bit problem, but it is much bigger than the flooding in Nigeria. I spoke about this problem on Wednesay night with Jaclyn Schiff and Mark Goldberg. Blaming the media misses the totality of the problem. When it comes to reporting on developing countries, the information provided is like one of those puzzle games where pieces are removed to show a picture that is never completed.

A few pieces are taken away to reveal a partial picture. NGOs issue reports and make calls to action that tell what is happening relative to their own work. Local media will tell a bit more, but the stories rarely reach an international audience. When it comes time for Western media to step in the reports are informed by the NGOs on the ground and are restricted due to resources and time/page space allotted to such issues.

All these factors contribute to the incomplete picture. What is often forgotten is the audience. There needs to be a demand for more and better reporting regarding developing countries. News consumers can voice this demand by frequenting the sources that do provide better reporting or urge their favorite outlets to cover more stories.

There are some excellent reporters who are telling important stories.The talent and desire is there from the side of the storytellers, it is a challenge of getting to the right audience. NPR is trying to reach the audience through its Shots blog, PRI is ramping up The World, the Guardien has its Development section, DAWNS is chugging along to pull together news and there are many more attempting to find ways to remove the pieces from the incomplete puzzle. Yes, Campbell is right that it needs to be better, but there are efforts underway to address that problem and ensure that issues like Nigeria's flood are not ignored.