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'We need to avert our gaze from the White House circus and focus on what matters'

Donald Trump’s presidency is a tumultuous soap opera, but it’s making us ignore real humanitarian disasters, writes Dominic MacSorley.

THOUGH WE LIVE in an age of unprecedented access to information and connection, it is becoming more and more challenging to communicate the most important, urgent information in mainstream media.

We are deep into the most severe hunger crisis the world has seen for decades, and amid the relentless cacophony of Trump and Brexit, the desperate cries for help from East Africa, Yemen and Nigeria are going unanswered. Despite extensive foreknowledge of the exceptional severity of the starvation crises in 2017, the humanitarian assistance appeals remain desperately underfunded well into the year, and the stream of public donations globally to a crisis of this magnitude has been underwhelming.

A large cause of the grossly inadequate response to the shocking humanitarian crisis facing the globe is that few people actually know the true scale of the current crisis. A recent poll by the International Rescue Committee (IRC) showed that 85% of Americans are oblivious to the severity of the starvation crisis.

In Ireland, where 80% of the public are supportive of Ireland’s overseas development programme, awareness may be higher but international humanitarian agencies are struggling to communicate the urgency of what is going on right now.

It’s true that we have never had such instantaneous access to information, but that doesn’t mean we are getting more in-depth knowledge. We increasingly get our news not from curated media like newspapers or scheduled TV news bulletins, but from our smart phones, through social media and other clickable outlets where we can select what we want to read, and how much of it we want to read. And, as we jump from headlines and soundbites, we often end up missing the bigger picture.

Trump White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders speaks to the press Evan Vucci / PA Evan Vucci / PA / PA

We all watched the US presidential election with awe and disbelief. We were certainly entertained like never before, but most of us expected things to calm down a bit as the unlikely President settled into his new role. We all expected that there would be time for renewed public engagement with events that were happening around the world.

But, of course, that’s not what happened. Donald Trump’s presidency is a tumultuous soap opera, like a twisted season of The West Wing, with a new controversy every week. It is car crash stuff and we can’t look away. Literally, we cannot look away.

number of recent studies have shed light on the rapidly increasing levels of behavioural addiction in all levels of society as a result of smartphones, and the continuously shocking updates from the White House are perfect fodder for this widespread compulsion. They are outrageous, entertaining and most importantly, they don’t require real engagement. They provide instant gratification.

Drago SIPA USA / PA Images SIPA USA / PA Images / PA Images

The Trump administration’s stance on matters such as race, migration, security and North Korea, are all critical issues, but more often the media and the public are focused on the US president’s more superficial commentary rather than the issues themselves.

Against the backdrop of the White House soap opera, the plight of millions across Africa cannot compete.  On the day that famine was declared this year in South Sudan – the first famine on Earth in six years - the top news story was Donald Trump’s erroneous assertion that there was a terrorist attack in Sweden. Similarly, when Sierra Leone was hit by flooding and resultant mudslides that have killed hundreds of people, the news cycle was jammed with Trump’s disturbing reaction to the violent protests in Virginia.

David Beasley, a former Republican governor of South Carolina and a key player in President Trump’s election, was appointed earlier this year as Director General of the World Food Programme. Within weeks of his appointment he commented on media coverage of world affairs: “…if you turn on ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, CNN — it’s nothing but Trump, Trump, Trump, Trump!…And very little information about the famines in Syria, northeast Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, Yemen.”

SIERRA LEONE-FREETOWN-MUDSLIDES-AFTERMATH Bodies are taken from the mudslides in Freetown, Sierra Leone, last month. Xinhua News Agency / PA Images Xinhua News Agency / PA Images / PA Images

He added: “We’ve got to break through all of the smoke…This is not fake news, this is reality.”

Last month, Concern, along with the UN and nine other NGOs, published the results of a nutrition survey in Kenya, which revealed that nearly 73,000 children are severely malnourished and at risk of dying from drought-related hunger unless urgent aid is made available immediately. That is real news and these are real children who can be saved if pressure is brought to bear on policy makers and resources are delivered in time, but it is increasingly difficult to communicate such urgent information through modern media channels.

The reality of starvation, hunger and death cannot be tweeted and in the sea of fragmented information, the urgency of our humanitarian obligations has been eroded. We need to find a way to reinvigorate this urgency because in 2017 levels of need have reached unprecedented proportions.

YEMEN-SANAA-FOOD SHORTAGE People gather to receive bread from a charity centre in Yemen Xinhua News Agency / PA Images Xinhua News Agency / PA Images / PA Images

Humanitarian organisations have been criticised in the past for broadcasting disturbing images of the effects of starvation. Believe me, the reality of famine is far worse than any advertisement you ever saw for a charity. The images may disgust, but they should. Starvation and famine in the 21st century is disgusting. And it is going on right now because, despite having the means and the capacity to end it, we cannot find the focus or the political will to do so.

Perhaps, as organisations on the ground, we need to go back to the drawing board and find more effective ways of communicating the immediate severity of this moment. But we need the continued help of the media to carry that message and indeed of the consumer, whose everyday clicks increasingly determine the content of our news.

It’s time to avert our gaze from the circus. It’s time to focus on what matters most.

Dominic MacSorley is the chief executive of Concern Worldwide.

Read: Ireland gives €5.5 million in aid to crises in Chad and Central African Republic

Explainer: Why is Donald Trump ending a programme that allows children of illegal immigrants to stay in the US?

Dominic MacSorley
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