FEATURE - The invisible famine - The land is green, but everyone is starving. So how do you cover a ’green famine’ and what’s your pitch to compassion-weary news editors?

Tearfund is a Christian relief and development agency working in 90 countries round the world. It is a member of the Disasters Emergency Committee and a founding member of the Jubilee 2000 Coalition, which seeks cancellation of the debts of the world’s poorest countries. In June, Tearfund’s Keith Ewing visited Ethiopia and wrote a diary of his search for media coverage for a ’green famine’ - hard work when Ethiopia is off the media agenda.

Tearfund is a Christian relief and development agency working in 90

countries round the world. It is a member of the Disasters Emergency

Committee and a founding member of the Jubilee 2000 Coalition, which

seeks cancellation of the debts of the world’s poorest countries. In

June, Tearfund’s Keith Ewing visited Ethiopia and wrote a diary of his

search for media coverage for a ’green famine’ - hard work when Ethiopia

is off the media agenda.

12 June, 3pm: Tearfund’s photographer Jim Loring is bent double,

vomiting into a roadside ditch under the fiery afternoon sun, 150km

south of Addis Ababa - a combination of his first meal not agreeing with

him and exhaustion after a 28-hour journey. We have just arrived in

Ethiopia to gather news of famine conditions affecting hundreds of

thousands of people in the south of the country. It is an area where

little of the international aid sparked by the BBC’s Rageh Omaar’s

reports in March, has reached. An appeal letter to Tearfund supporters

is ready and waiting in London for our copy and photos to be emailed

back via satellite phone by midday tomorrow. Depending upon what we

discover we will also seek to alert the media on our return to


13 June, 7am: Over breakfast in the southern town of Hosanna, our host

Elias Bashaw of the Kale Heywet Church briefs us on the conditions in

the district of Hadiya, where 5,000 people have already died of hunger

He describes a ’green famine’ in which people are starving surrounded by

luscious countryside and crops that will not mature for months. A burst

of rain in April turned the land green, but there is nothing to eat

after three years of crop failure.

13 June, 10am: Elias is right. The countryside we pass through on our

way to the village of Ordie is exquisite. Terraced farm plots, groves of

eucalyptus trees, rolling green highlands. As our land cruiser pulls

into Ordie I am overtaken by a mild panic. The villagers look healthy,

far too well for us to illustrate famine. We are up against a midday

deadline for getting copy back to London. I resolve to remain calm for

the moment. The callous journalist in me is now trampling all over the

humanitarian worker. My past rather indulgent criticisms of

sensationalist and simplistic media coverage of disasters are forgotten.

In common with the media, we as humanitarian workers need right now to

dramatise desperate need with strong photos and stories.

A village elder shows us round. We walk past several mud huts, deserted

and partially collapsed. The owners, he explains, have recently died

from hunger. His words hang in the air, but still have little impact in

these idyllic surroundings. We stop in front of one such hut. Jim starts

taking photos as I conduct a minidisc interview with the elder for an

audio package to be posted later on the Tearfund web site. He tells me

that 90 per cent of the cattle in the village have died. He adds that

they are burying people every day.

In the next few minutes we cross the threshold of a parallel


We enter one hut and there on the floor is Degu Lamme, a 45-year-old

father of five who is too weak to walk or to haul his skeletal body to

the latrine.

Suddenly we have scratched below the surface and come face-to-face with

the ’green famine’. Degu’s cattle died from drought. Then he sold

everything he had to buy food for his family. Now the family has


We ask if Degu is willing to talk and be photographed. We learn that the

whole village knew we were coming and, like many we talk to and

photograph, Degu asks that we publicise their plight in the UK.

Motionless, and in a faint, croaky whisper, he says: ’I would ask in the

name of God that you reach out to us and give support and save our


By now some 20 villagers are peering curiously through the door of the

hut as Jim seeks to take useable images in the appalling semi-gloom of

Degu’s hut. Villagers offer to carry Degu outside into the daylight for

our benefit, but we quickly decline. It is a boundary we feel

uncomfortable crossing. Already, our presence in his home feels

intrusive. Twice during the interview Degu’s fading voice is drowned out

by the laughter of children playing in the doorway and we have to ask

for quiet. This only adds to the surreal nature of the mini media event

taking place in such desperate circumstances.

At one point I have to ask Degu’s wife, Wathiso to stop breast-feeding

while Jim is photographing. As bizarre as it seems in such a distressing

situation, an exposed breast would be a distraction in an appeal letter

seeking funds to fight famine. In line with Tearfund editorial

guidelines, we are seeking as far as possible to preserve people’s

dignity. Later in the day families are ripping the clothes off their

children to show us how emaciated are their legs and distended their

stomachs. Such images are more shocking. But we feel it is not


13 June, 4pm: We meet other villagers, including a 12-year-old girl,

Berhommesh, who collapses in front of us as we interview her father, and

14-year-old Zewdie whose eyes have recently swollen shut because of


We come away with devastating stories for the Tearfund appeal


After many hours of battling technology glitches we manage to email

Degu’s story back to London.

14 June, 1pm: We visit a village to the east called Chambulla. The

picture is the same as in Ordie. Malnourished children in need of drip

feeding, never mind food aid. I move through the crowd in Jim’s wake

interviewing those whom he photographs. A week later in London we will

conclude that to use some of the photos would be gratuitous. We will

discount one shot of a starving baby’s face contorted by a scream partly

because its distress is not solely caused by hunger, but by its mother

prising its mouth from her empty breast. The image also fails to offer

context and is too sensationalist.

15 June, 11am: Our hosts know a freelance cameraman who is able to shoot

some pictures of Ordie for us to take back to London. We revisit Degu,

who seems much weaker. Berhommesh, the girl who collapsed in front of us

two days previously, can no longer walk. We are dismayed to see the

cameraman shooting on VHS as we realise that there will be little of

broadcast quality. Jim and I discuss the likelihood of media interest in

the ’green famine’ on our return. The wall-to-wall coverage of famine in

March underlined the power of the media to play a role in averting an

utter catastrophe.

But we are worried that this will mean the media feel they have ’done’

Ethiopia. Also, ’green famine’ lacks the drama of a classic drought.

There are no crowds of hungry people arriving en masse at feeding

centres. Rather, they are dying spread out, village by village, hut by

hut. And what of public frustration with ongoing disaster in Ethiopia?

The response in March once again belied predictions of compassion

fatigue. How long will it be before we give up on Ethiopians, so often

presented as helpless beneficiaries?

25 June, 9am: Back in London I start the media ring-round.

Correspondents and foreign desks, radio news programmes and news agency

bureaux are approached about Ethiopia’s unfolding ’green famine.’

’To be honest, Ethiopia is down the news agenda now,’ said one

television news editor. ’People will wake up and see that the situation

is not going away, then at some point we will rush back in again.’

’We would like to do something, but we have to cover what is happening

this week. And that happens to be Zimbabwe,’ was the sympathetic

response of one national newspaper.

’I don’t want to sound cynical, but we have done a lot on Ethiopia,’

said another national newspaper.

1 July, 9am: Positive coverage appears in the religious press, with

photos, news stories and features running in Church of England

Newspaper, the Baptist Times, Christian Herald and other publications.

This is crucial coverage in support of the appeal as church-goers

comprise Tearfund’s prime target audience.

2 July, 9am: The only national newspaper to have bitten is the

Independent on Sunday, which ordered 600 words and a photo.

3 July, 9am: A colleague greets me in the office with the words: ’Did

you hear the Today programme this morning? They ran an item on wildlife

in the Horn of Africa dying because of the drought.’

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