Saturday, 23 February 2013

Silent Disasters: Let’s turn up the volume

Image by IFRC/Finnish Red Cross

Last October, the United States, the Bahamas, Jamaica, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, India, Vietnam, Argentina, Somalia and Indonesia all were all hit by a flurry of natural disasters.  Yet of all of these, most people have only heard about Hurricane Sandy, which claimed 131 lives and caused major damages to the East Coast of the US. 

Media figures released by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) showed that the impact of Hurricane Sandy in the US grabbed almost 90 percent of all print and online media coverage of a set of 13 disasters from January 2012 to January 2013, across 160 countries.

The other "silent disasters" were food insecurity in both the Sahel and southern Africa, a tropical storm that struck Bangladesh in October, floods in Cambodia and Ecuador, a recent snap of extreme cold in Mongolia, disease epidemics in Uganda including Ebola, a series of earthquakes in Tajikistan, hand, foot and mouth disease in Vietnam, a dengue outbreak in El Salvador and the difficulties faced by Burundian refugees returning home from Tanzania.

The Red Cross and the European Commission have launched a media campaign this week to raise public awareness about the many “silent disasters” around the world that are under-reported, under-funded and often forgotten.

Over 90 percent of disasters around the world go unnoticed. They’re too small, inconvenient or overshadowed by other events. Without the attention of the public and the media, they often pass under the donor community's radar.

"Small-scale disasters may not reach our TV screens, but they still cast painful blows to millions of people every year, destroying their homes and livelihoods," said EU Commissioner for International Cooperation, Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Response Kristalina Georgieva, highlighting the work done by ECHO and the Red Cross to bring relief aid to hard-hit communities.

"Our joint efforts are more important than ever, as climate change, urbanisation and population growth are pushing up the number and impact of disasters,” Georgieva added.  

Each decade, disasters around the world are growing in frequency, severity and cost with no end in sight. By 2015 an estimated 375 million people - a 79 percent increase from 2011 - will suffer the ravages of devastating weather events. These figures are truly alarming.

Even during this time of economic austerity, slashing humanitarian budgets would amount to turning a blind eye to a costly reality that affects us all, and writing off the lives of the millions of families affected by disasters, Georgieva, added. 

Watch the campaign’s video, shown in cinema and on television in 11 European countries this month. It depicts people in comfortable homes eating, while disaster survivors look on in the background. Then the Europeans suddenly hear their voices… The campaign will also run on websites, social media (with the hashtag #silentdisasters) and in print.

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Women who feed the world - Mothers of the Soil

Here is an article I wrote for the Indian magazine The Caravan about an innovative collaboration between Oxfam and the popular Tanzanian reality TV show Maisha Plus.

The idea was to celebrate the women who grow most of the food in developing countries and show viewers how important they are, how resourceful and creative they are, and how hard they work. 

I spent a week in the reality TV village, getting to know the 14 finalists and some of the young people, and watching them going about their daily activities. We would sit on mats they had woven and they would tell me their stories, which my lovely translator Abigail-Precious Ambweni, translated. I loved it!  Their stories moved me, inspired me, made me angry, made me happy – and I am sure the million of viewers who watched the show at night felt the same way.

Studies have shown that the best way to cut hunger in the world is to invest in women who farm small plots and ensure they have the same rights and access to resources as men. So let's do it!

Mothers of the Soil


By Veronique Mistiaen | 1 February 2013

The latest season of Maisha Plus gave young contestants and viewers a taste of what women in Tanzania and across Africa go through to put food on the table. COURTESY SVEN TORFIN / OXFAM

THE LATE-AFTERNOON SUN bathed the small village in soft, golden light. With thatched huts scattered among palm trees, vegetable gardens, a well, and scrawny chickens scurrying about, it was the quintessential rural African scene. But a closer inspection revealed cables half-buried in the grey sand, and cameras hidden behind palm trees and shrubs.

We were in a make-believe village, built from scratch at a secret location in the Pwani region of Tanzania. The village was the set for Maisha Plus, a Big Brother-type television show, whose latest season was produced in collaboration with the international development charity Oxfam, and ran from October to December last year. Twenty-five young men and women from cities were competing in a standard ‘survival’ format show, but this season the show also had a special segment in which 14 women who farm small plots of land in rural Tanzania competed for the title of “Mama Shujaa Wa Chakula” (Female Food Hero). This segment was an extension of a show Oxfam had introduced the  previous year.

Oxfam estimates that their female food heroes show reached 25 million Tanzanians in 2011, through television, as well as through discussions on radio, social media and newspapers—even in remote villages, people gather at night in community centres to watch it. “The idea behind the show is to give young contestants and millions of viewers a taste of what women in Tanzania and across Africa go through to put food on their tables with limited resources and in the face of enormous challenges,” said Mwanahamisi Salimu, a coordinator with Oxfam. “It is an opportunity to push for them to have access to the same rights and resources as their male counterparts, and a way to scale up the voices of women farmers.”

The women contestants arrived in the village first, and stayed for two weeks, performing the tasks they would in their own daily lives—clearing land, planting vegetables, milking goats, fetching water, cooking cassava and building chicken coops. The young people, who joined the women at the end of the women’s stay, learned these skills from them over a week, before being left to survive on their own for the next eight weeks. Viewers voted winners from both groups, influenced as much by the contestants’ performance of the tasks as by their personalities and life stories.

In Tanzania, as in many African countries, women produce much of the food that feeds people. Few, however, own the land they farm or enjoy the same rights as men. In a pre-show interview to Oxfam and Maisha Plus, Tatu Abdi, a contestant from the Tanga region said, “Women are treated as tractors, but they have to treat their husbands like angels.”

The 14 women on the show were selected from among more than 7,000 applicants from across the country, and were in many ways typical of the millions of women who farm small plots of land. But the participants were also chosen for their unique life experiences and the challenges they had overcome. Eline Olotu Orio from the Kilimanjaro region, for example, managed to fight her community’s deep-seated patriarchal tradition and acquire a piece of land when she was only 20 years old. Nearly two decades later, this land supports her family, and Orio continues to improve her farm with innovative ideas—among these is a metal granary to protect her produce from the region’s scourge of rodents, which can eat up as much as 30 percent of a farmer’s crops. Another contestant, Emiliana Aligaesha from the Kagera region, couldn’t feed her nine children on her primary-school teacher’s salary, and so turned to agriculture. She now grows coffee, banana, beans and maize, and supplies quality seedlings to other villagers. Dorah Myinga from the Southern Highlands took a loan to buy a tractor—a step unheard of for a woman, let alone a widow. She now tends her 12-acre farm, and also earns money by renting her tractor out to other villagers.

To prepare for the show, a team from Oxfam and Maisha Plus spent a month criss-crossing the country to document the lives of these and other finalists. In the process, they uncovered some of the issues that hinder women’s progress: they often don’t own the land they work on, they struggle to get fair access to markets, they lack proper training and adequate tools, and they often face threats of violence. In almost all the villages, women complained that they were the ones seeding, planting, weeding and ploughing crops; but when harvest time came, men took over—sometimes selling the crops and keeping all the profits. In Orio’s village, women talked of a horrifying “season of rape”—a time when maize has grown so tall that some men hide in the fields, and attack, rape and even kill women. “The weeding season has become the raping season,” said one woman from the village during an open forum with Oxfam. “Since no men tend to the farms and women’s farms are very far from villages, rapists take advantage of that. We buried a victim a couple of weeks ago.”