It’s now over a month since Russia invaded Ukraine, resulting in violence, shortages of food, water, and medicines, and over 10 million people having fled their homes.
The knock-on effort of this crisis has rippled around the world, with protests against the invasion in numerous countries, international bans against Russian companies and sports teams, neighboring regions scrambling to welcome and settle refugees, and a food crisis being sparked that threatens to push 500 million people globally into acute hunger.
Many fundraising efforts have been launched to support Ukraine and the people impacted by the conflict — UN spokesperson Stéphane Dujarric told journalists after a pledging conference in March: “This is among the fastest and most generous responses a humanitarian flash appeal has ever received.”
Meanwhile, celebrities around the world have been speaking out in support of those living through the conflict, while the war has dominated the global news cycle for weeks. Long story short, the world has, rightly, been stopped in its tracks by this war.
There’s no question that the international community must do all it can to support and protect those experiencing the impacts of the conflict. But what about all those living through conflicts and crises that aren’t centered in Europe?
This may be a surprise to you, but in 2021, the African continent saw a record year of forced displacement as a result of conflict and repression — with more than 32 million people across Africa being either internally displaced, refugees, or asylum seekers.
Crises in Africa
Africa trudged into 2022 with the baggage of military coups in the west and civil war in the east. These are situations that have either been bubbling under only to explode as the year began (such as the military coup in Guinea) or that have been high risk circumstances for several years, for instance the civil dispute surrounding Lake Chad.
In Cameroon, there’s been two ongoing conflicts since 2016 that have displaced more than 750,000 people and left an estimated 2.2 million needing critical humanitarian support. The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has been in a continuous cycle of conflict for almost three decades (it’s even been dubbed the “forever war”) displacing 5.5 million people and leaving 8.8 million more — 49% of whom are children — at the point of extreme food insecurity.
A major crisis is also being seen in South Sudan, with over 2.3 million people becoming refugees and asylum seekers while more than half a million people in the country are on the brink of famine. Yet it remains one of the most underfunded crises globally, having received just 40% (about $490 million) of the over $1.2 billion needed, as of December 2021.
Sudan, Nigeria, the list of African countries experiencing crises goes on and on. But where is the global reaction to these crises? Why isn’t the international community working around the clock to do all it can to support those whose lives have been uprooted? From media coverage to humanitarian funding, crises that predominantly affect people of color are either normalized or entirely neglected.
It begs the question: does the world think African lives are less valuable or less worthy of support and protection than European lives?
Why is it that the world doesn’t seem to care?
Where Does the Media Come In?
Many commentators have highlighted how, in the days immediately following the invasion of Ukraine, the western media narrative was one of shock and horror — that a war like this could happen but, most importantly, that a war like this could happen in Europe.
The examples are numerous and from across many of the world’s leading outlets, from CBS to ITV to Al Jazeera.
As Arwa Damon, CNN senior international correspondent, wrote in an opinion piece published in March: “I hear it in the rhetoric coming out from politicians, journalists, and global leaders. Rhetoric about how Ukrainians are a ‘prosperous middle-class people,’ ‘the family next door,’ ‘civilized’. As if what is defined as a human worth saving is identified by the color of their skin, the language they speak, the religion they practice, or where they were born.”
Author and professor Moustafa Bayoumi added in the Guardian: “These comments point to a pernicious racism that permeates today’s war coverage and seeps into its fabric like a stain that won’t go away. The implication is clear: war is a natural state for people of color, while white people naturally gravitate towards peace.”
The US-based Arab and Middle Eastern Journalists Association put out a statement condemning this global narrative as reflecting “the pervasive mentality in western journalism of normalizing tragedy in parts of the world such as the Middle East, Africa, south Asia, and Latin America.” It added that this “dehumanizes and renders their experience with war as somehow normal and expected.”
Reporters expressed shock over war happening in a "relatively civil" country like Ukraine… pic.twitter.com/ePEDZ1GKAd— The Daily Show (@TheDailyShow) March 1, 2022
It’s particularly damaging when this narrative extends beyond media coverage, filtering into the comments of politicians. Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov said: “These people are intelligent, they are educated people… This is not the refugee wave we have been used to, people we were not sure about their identity, people with unclear pasts, who could have been even terrorists.”
Speaking on BBC, one Ukrainian official said: “It’s very emotional for me because I see European people with blonde hair, blue eyes, being killed, children being killed every day with Putin’s missiles.”
As well as what the media says, it’s also important to consider the scale and frequency of its coverage.
Anyone checking the news online can find a day-by-day account of the events in Ukraine. As a comparison, take the war in Ethiopia’s Tigray and neighboring regions, where there has been war since the end of 2020 — not only bringing life to a standstill for hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians, but also for the asylum seekers from Eritrea, South Sudan, and Somalia, who had left their home countries in search of safety in Tigray.
This war, which was ongoing for 17 months before a humanitarian truce was announced in March, may have reached some headlines and remained a humanitarian priority, but it has not been covered in the media nearly as much as the ongoing war in Ukraine.
According to industry research, in fact, the difference in how the wars were covered in their first two weeks is astonishing. In November 2020, the Tigray war received just over 1,600 mentions in global media. The beginning of the war in Ukraine, on the other hand, received 291,000 mentions in its first two weeks.
What About Funding?
It might sound trivial, but the level of attention crises and conflicts receive in the public sphere matters and can often be seen to have an impact on the funding that crises receive. The more media coverage a crisis gets, the more the public care, the more governments want to be seen acting on it.
It’s something that many in international development are drawing attention to at the moment, concerned that in the wake of the rush to support Ukraine, other humanitarian crises, already facing severe funding shortages, may further lose out. It’s why so many calls for funding to support Ukraine also highlight that this must be new, additional funding — not siphoned off from existing aid budgets.
According to the New Humanitarian, for example: “Ukraine has received almost three times as much as the next highest recipient of the UN’s rapid response funding mechanism.”
Looking at the funding achieved by various inter-agency humanitarian responses in 2021 — there are many that fail to reach even 50% of the needed funding. Those that didn’t reach even half of the funding needed included appeals for Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cameroon, Chad, DRC, Ethiopia, and more.
Meanwhile, funds raised by the Disasters Emergency Committee, a private fundraising group for the 15 biggest UK aid charities, paint a similar picture. Its 2014 campaign for the Ebola crisis, for example, raised £37 million; for Cyclone Idai, which hit southern Africa in 2019, £43 million was raised; for the East Africa crisis in 2017, £66 million was raised. For Ukraine, its appeal hit £200 million in the first two weeks.
There’s a global shortage for humanitarian funding. A report by the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) shows that 274 million people will need humanitarian assistance in 2022 — the highest predicted number in decades. It said that $41 billion would be needed to reach the 183 million people most in need across 63 countries. That was before natural disasters hit Southern Africa, and before the Ukraine invasion, and the resulting increasing global food crisis.
What Needs to Happen?
If we’re all going to agree that global solidarity is important, then we should practice every meaning of that phrase. We should stand in solidarity with all parts of the globe that face need, and not just the parts in the northern hemisphere populated with white faces.
No matter where they are occurring, issues of displacement, violence, hunger, and poverty are urgent humanitarian issues in need of solving. The idea that some should be exempt from experiencing these crises simply because of the location they’re in or the color of their skin, is an idea that we collectively need to delete from our brains.
The crisis in Ukraine has shown us what global support can look like and what it can do when it is in full force. It’s been a wonder to watch; a truly beautiful and incomparable thing that will be remembered for decades to come. Now that we know it’s possible to stand together in impressive numbers and defend all those who are vulnerable, let’s bring that same energy to other crises around the world, to crises in Africa and the Global South.
It matters how Africa’s issues are portrayed and amplified by the media and world leaders because, as we’ve witnessed with Ukraine, the more eyes on a situation, the more potential there is for much-needed support. Global silence on Africa’s issues risks reinforcing the idea that the world doesn’t care about Africa — and that should not be the message we’re sending to the continent, its countries, and its people.