Famine Relief: Using the Web to Tell the Story

The American Refugee Committee, a Minneapolis-based organization, adapts outreach to a new media environment.

Rwanda 2011

By John Rash

December 23, 2011

Also published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune

Given East Africa's geopolitical importance, as well as Minnesota's burgeoning population of immigrants from that region, any month would be an appropriate time for the Minnesota International Center's "Great Decisions" program to home in on the Horn of Africa.

But it's particularly timely during this Thanksgiving month, since Somalia, contending with natural and man-made disasters, faces famine that has resulted in the world's worst humanitarian crisis, according to the U.S. State Department.

As it has in so many other challenged lands, the Minneapolis-based American Refugee Committee (ARC) is already responding. Recruiting doctors and nurses from the global Somali diaspora, ARC has teams in the country's chaotic capital, Mogadishu.

If their efforts are similar to the effective refugee camp for displaced Congolese that I visited last week during an International Reporting Project trip to Rwanda, thousands will be helped.

To generate citizen interest in helping Somalia, ARC is taking a dramatically different approach than was used during the Ethiopian famine in 1985.

The strategic shift reflects the changes, and challenges, resulting from a top-down monolithic media world evolving into today's atomized social media society: Back then, it was "We Are the World." Today, it's we are the World Wide Web.

ARC has created a Web-based platform called "I AM A STAR." Visualized by the iconic star centered in Somalia's flag, it refers to donors engaged in do-it-yourself advocacy that encourages people to get involved at a local level to provide famine relief and to amplify aspects of Somalia's culture and citizens.

The multimedia site includes a dashboard quantifying access to emergency food supplies, clean water and sanitation. But just as prominent are the running tabs of advocates and volunteers, as well as their social-media messages.

"'We Are the World' had 25 celebrities," said Daniel Wordsworth, ARC's president and CEO. "What we're saying to a schoolchild in Minnesota is, 'No, you're the star.'"

That's not all that's changed. After consulting with IDEO, the internationally noted design firm, ARC decided to downplay images of the famine. "People are so predisposed to seeing it as hopeless that if you show more hopeless pictures, you actually make it worse," Wordsworth explained.

That is if people are seeing the pictures at all. In mid-August, when news emerged of the famine, the Pew Research Center cited only 2 percent of news coverage dedicated to the disaster.

This is partly a result of "narrative fatigue" affecting the public and the media alike, said Alisa Miller, president and CEO of Minneapolis-based Public Radio International, which created and produces the daily global news program "The World."

"It ends up feeling hackneyed, intractable, or totally hopeless, or like it's just going to happen again. This, combined with less investment in original international reporting, adds up to why it doesn't get covered by the mass media as much as you think it would, given what a huge humanitarian situation that it is," Miller said.

Wordsworth said statistics show that 20 percent of Americans are aware of the famine. But he says that even among those, "the individual is very conflicted, asking: 'Can it change?' 'Will my money go where I want it to go?' And very deep down and secretly, 'Am I actually helping terrorists?'"

Rhetorically asking what the average Minnesotan thinks when asked about Somalia, he cites "Pirates. Terrorism. Chaos. And maybe 'Black Hawk Down.' And even within the Somali community, after 20 years of struggling in a country, people begin to despair and lose hope about its possibility of changing. And if you are an older Somali, you see a generation of young Somalis who have never been to school, and the ones who are here are moving away from your own culture."

Wordsworth says that by emphasizing the positive -- the Somali youth group that raised $11,000, or General Mills donating $100,000, "which had a night-and-day difference on what we were able to do" -- ARC hopes to change the nation's narrative.

"Suddenly people will have a bridge to their own empathy," Wordsworth said. "We're trying to show beauty rather than horror. 'I AM A STAR' is meant to instill belief by showing a human face and showing these are amazing people: If Somalia is full of these youth and these doctors and these creative artists, I can believe that it can change."

In a land short of nearly everything, including belief, ARC's approach is something to be thankful for.

John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer. He traveled to Rwanda as an Gatekeeper Editor with the International Reporting Project (IRP).