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The Profile of Drought and Famine.

Tsegaye Arrefe 11-18-15

To change or not to change, that is the question. A profile picture anyway. This is the burning issue taking the social media landscape by storm these days. I can be old fashioned in that I may have changed my profile picture only three times in about eight years, one of them inadvertently. When Facebook came out with a temporary profile prompt to express solidarity with France, I thought that was a noble idea, though I did not quite get around it.

A day passed and I was surprised the passion profile changes garnered. The Ethiopian conversations on Facebook were soon flooded by those who pointed to the hypocrisy of fellow Facebookers for changing their profiles clad with the French flag. They quizzed about the indifference during the attacks of Ethiopians in South Africa, their massacre in Libya, and forcible deportations from Saudi Arabia. And a considerable number of people also wanted to Pray for Ethiopia.

The prayers would be for the citizens perishing through famine. The untold numbers of Ethiopians succumbing to death due to lack of food. There were photographs gracing many pages with dead livestock on a field, menacing faces of starving children with flies parked on their skeletal faces.

In this time of citizen journalism, one would take very seriously any discourse that helps the cause. One would also be hard pressed to vet the veracity of the discourse in order to construct a true picture. As a picture can say what a thousand words cannot even convey, the verisimilitude of the picture is key to its validity. So I decided to research the pictures being posted as reflective of the reality on the ground.

Such goes my quick finding: the field where the livestock carcass fills the field as far as the eye can see happened to be from a tragic time in Kenya in 2006, and the skeletal children, from our recent bout with famine in 1984.

Marshall McLuhan clearly predicted the influence the Internet will have when he theorized on and coined the concept of Global Village even before the arrival of the internet. His prediction clearly alluded to the contraction of the globe into a village by electronic technology where instantaneous movement of information from every quarter to every point at the same time will be the norm. In “Understanding Media”, he says “the electric speed in bringing all social and political functions together in a sudden implosion has heightened human awareness of responsibility to an intense degree”.

One vital role social networks play today is the democratization of information and the condensation of distance. It is possible to bypass gatekeepers and distribute all available knowledge to the virtual community. The downside, however, as The Washington Post highlighted in an article featured on April 26, 2013 titled “Why the Internet is a false idol”, about the dangers of conclusions arrived at from sole consumption of the internet as (the failure to) “-rarely make up enough to say anything meaningful or even accurate about the full picture.” Also in the context of the tragic Boston marathon bombing, Matt Buchanan penned an essay regarding the hurried and often misleading digital coverage of unfolding events declaring them “divorced from their original circumstances, reconstituted in a world brimming with new context.”

Climate change is one real test the globe is facing today and will keep doing for many years to come. Many a politician in the United States would argue they are not scientists but would go on to deny the role humans play in climate change. I for one would say, then leave it to the scientists. El Nino is not as distant as the impending climate change, rather it is here and now. Among those suffering from its wrath, Ethiopia is close and dear to our heart and we are exhibiting our collective concern in ways we deem appropriate. The impacts of the lack of rain are immediately evident. Crops are hampered and reserves empty in affected areas. For the affected population the effects are real. What has become quite interesting though is the interpretation of their very experience. This is at the heart of the divide between what the government is doing on the ground and the digital manifestations from some in our global village.

From the get go, the Ethiopian government declared about the grave situation the shortage of rain is set to cause. There was a decisive and clear declaration of impact area and affected populations. Unlike previous regimes who attempted to bury their head in the sand, the current government initially released a statement on March 6, 2015 though the joint Government and humanitarian partners a Humanitarian Requirements Document (HRD). In this mid-year review, 1.6 million people were assessed as requiring relief food. This number was further upgraded through the same instrument on August 24, 2015 to 4.5 million requiring relief. By any measure, this is a far cry from the status quo of only 30 years ago.

As a country of about 98 million, Ethiopia is a populous country. In a rain based agriculture infra-structure, loss of rain should present enormous challenges to meet demand. Drought is affecting swaths of land across the land. If the pattern holds or veers worse, even more people will be affected by it. The thin line between drought and famine, however, is food management.

Drought is, as it is manifesting itself in parts of Ethiopia today, a result of a period of dryness due to lack of rain in affected areas. Famine, on the other hand, while can be an outcome of drought, is a man-made disaster. Famine, to employ The Borgen Project’s impeccable definition, unlike drought that is solely a result of finicky Mother Nature, is caused when humans fail to make resources available to affected areas.

The Ethiopian government is not shying away from admitting the scope of need in affected areas. Has mobilized aid from within and abroad, in addition to putting donors on notice. So far there is international consensus and a lauding of the drought management by the government. Here and there, there have been unconfirmed reports of daily deaths like the one by the BBC. With their expensive cameras and their global reach, they have not been able to beam such images to the global audience. The simple declaration that was passed as solid evidence was this statement: “The UN says that in one area, two babies were dying every day. So Bertukan had joined a growing list of other mothers who had been left inconsolable.I scoured the global village for any original referencing  and could not find such a statement being attributed to the UN. A query in the internet yielded reposts by Nazret, Mereja, Ethsat, Ecadforum.

Remember Marshall McLuhan’s statement, “the electric speed in bringing all social and political functions together in a sudden implosion has heightened human awareness of responsibility to an intense degree”, here it is. The sudden implosion of human awareness, albeit devoid of the ‘responsibility’ part. For awareness can easily be the other kind, the one lacking verisimilitude.

To change or not to change my Facebook profile? Now this is a tough one. I saw some banning friends with the French flag profile as they were deemed less Ethiopian. And I went through an instructional manual how you can use Mali’s flag and rotate it at a 180 degrees to get the Ethiopian one in order to avoid the star in the middle. It is ok, I will stay old fashioned and leave it alone.


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