Many countries have enough arable land and resources to feed their population, yet a significant number of people face hunger and malnutrition. Pakistan is one of them – an underreported fact in the country´s media.
By Asif Khan
Pakistan has plenty of fertile land, one of the largest canal systems in the world, and a reasonable road infrastructure. With a large workforce at hand that could be used for agriculture and food production, the country could not only feed its people but also export a surplus. But despite these favourable conditions, an estimated 90 million people in Pakistan face extreme hunger and the country imports millions of tons of food and relies heavily on international aid support.
Malnutrition in Pakistan peaked during the years from 2006 to 2014, when the country was hit hard by terrorist attacks. Ongoing conflict meant millions of people in the tribal areas of Pakistan got displaced, losing their assets, income, and homes. Many of them faced hunger during that decade of displacement, and malnutrition often resulted in death, especially among women, elderly people and children.
This man-made hunger killed more people than bombs and bullets. It was, however, hardly a topic in the county’s media.
The underreported crisis
Media could have highlighted this issue effectively, but they didn’t. The almost 150 private TV channels, more than 200 radio stations and thousands of publications preferred reporting bomb blasts, attacks, kidnappings, terrorist threats, or army manoeuvres.
Private channels and publications have little incentive to report on agriculture and food production, and the state media has failed to fill the gap. As a result, citizens had nowhere to turn for meaningful information on food security and distribution, their rights in relation to the issue and the government’s responsibilities.
This is partly due to a lack of awareness among journalists, and partly the result of an information ecosystem that is highly concentrated on making profit and particularly conservative. The Pakistani media’s shortcomings when it comes to reporting on agriculture and food supply are therefore presumably no coincidence. The nexus between food security and the role of the media has long been established: As Amartya Sen, the winner of the 1998 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences, already has pointed out, no democracy with a free press has ever endured famine.
Famine prevention and a free press
A major reason for poor food security is the lack of information and communication about it. This is one of the biggest missing links in a whole chain of efforts to produce and distribute food effectively.
Making farmers aware about weather patterns, educating them about modern ways of agriculture, timely information about floods and droughts, pushing governments for food friendly policies, making them and the traders accountable for their actions, informing the public about their rights and responsibilities, facilitating the timely and transparent distribution of food: all this is possible by having the media report on it.
But this seems to be missing not only from the government agenda, but also from those of international humanitarian organizations.
Too often, governments still fail to involve media and other means of communication effectively in order to address the need for information, awareness and accountability related to food crisis, food production, management, and consumption. Meanwhile, international organisations working on food crises mostly respond in emergency mode, with a short-term plan focused on procuring and distributing the food items instead of looking into a long-term solution. To tackle this problem, food support and other development organisations could allocate more time and resources to communication strategies involving traditional and modern media, including online platforms.
New approaches needed
Beyond some small efforts by international media development organisations to train and push journalists to cover humanitarian crises, there clearly are a number of other approaches to tackle the challenge.
First and foremost, I believe that more journalists should be made aware of the issue and be offered intensive training for reporting on food security.
Also, lobbying and organizational development activities could be designed to improve the capacity and policies of existing media houses for coverage of food security issues. The goal should be to produce and disseminate more effective content, targeting all the involved parties, including food producers, distributors, consumers, policy makers and other stakeholders.
And: Every year, the UN has world food day themes like Rural Youth, Women, Water, Trees and so on. This time the annual theme could be Media for Food.
Timely information, awareness, public pressure, informed decision making, accountability, and joint efforts, all this together will help to bring the world out of food crises in a longer run.
Asif Khan is DW Akademie’s Country Representative in Pakistan and Expert Advisor for Decentralization and Security for Europe and Asia. He has 19 years of experience in media development, media management, strategic communication, organizational development, and the development of media projects to counter radicalization. Khan spoke about the topic of food security and media development askeynote speaker at a conference on under-reported humanitarian crises. The event was organized by CARE Germany e.V. and the Friedrich Nauman Foundation for Freedom in July 2021.