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Reporting From Kenya: U.S. Editors Cover Health, Environment, and Security

October 01, 2009 // 12:00pm2:00pm
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Africa Program
Maternal Health Initiative
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The global recession has "been very hard on journalists," explained Andrea Crossan, radio producer for BBC's "The World". "With these kinds of cutbacks, you really feel it when it comes to foreign coverage." Along with Stephanie Hanson, associate director and coordinating editor of CFR.org, and Margaret McElligott, senior producer for washingtonpost.com, Crossan spoke about the International Reporting Project's (IRP) Gatekeeper trip to Kenya at an event sponsored by the Environmental Change and Security Program.

"You've seen a lot of areas of the world that just aren't getting the coverage these places deserve, and Africa is one of those places," said Crossan, partly due to the expense of travel, security, and satellite equipment. IRP, a project of The Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies, aims to fill gaps in foreign reporting left by extensive budget cuts by offering U.S.-based editors and journalists opportunities to report on international stories.

"I've traveled a fair amount with the BBC, and I've seen some really difficult living conditions for people. I've never seen anything like I've seen in Kibera," said Crossan. "We can look at all of the things we are talking about today"—environment, health, security—"through what's happening in Kibera."

Poverty and Pirates

At a meeting at the University of Nairobi, a student criticized foreign reporting of Kenya, saying that it "only seems to cover poverty and pirates," said Crossan. That's a slight improvement over previous years, when U.S. coverage focused on "witches and war," noted an audience member.

McElligott, who previously worked for AllAfrica.com, agreed that U.S. media coverage of Africa is becoming richer, with fewer instances of racism accompanying reporting. "The world is so much smaller now," with email, Facebook, blogs, and video providing additional venues and in-country contacts, she said.

The Kenyan press is the "most trusted institution" in the country, said Hanson. They expose corruption, report on health issues, and call the government to task. With the decline in U.S. journalists posted abroad, the support and stories provided by Kenyan reporters is crucial to getting coverage in the international media.

While pitching international stories to U.S. audiences might be a hard sell, "if it's a good, compelling story, it will go up in a prominent place" with or without a U.S. angle, said McElligott. "It's just about telling human stories," said Crossan.

Kenya on the Edge: Drought and Conflict

"In the last months we've seen the food crisis grow in Kenya," said McElligott. On the group's visit to Laikipia, she noted the impacts of soil degradation, unsustainable water extraction from rivers, and the lack of governmental regulation. Lack of land and water is forcing pastoralists to travel miles away from home in order to feed cattle and goats.

"We're desperate for water here," said Laikipia resident Niyok Npanyaki in an IRP video report. "We've decided that if water is cut off, we'll go to the water source on Mount Kenya, even if the government doesn't let us. Otherwise we will die. People don't start wars for no reason. If I am hungry, but if you have food, I'll come to you and find it."

"Loss of natural resources puts people under extreme pressure and people will go to extreme lengths in order to get those fundamentally important natural resources," says Dr. Anthony King, director of Laikipia Wildlife Forum, in the video. Adding to the tension between farmers and pastoralists is the easy access to firearms in the Horn of Africa. "Almost every pastoralist will have an automatic weapon," says King.

The IRP fellows visited the headquarters of the UN Environment Programme in Nairobi, but found it difficult to gauge the effectiveness of UNEP at addressing Kenya's drought and deforestation. According to Crossan, UNEP has invested in a number of local programs, but the UNEP officials they spoke with seemed frustrated that the Kenyan government was not more involved in tackling the country's environmental problems.

"Something I struggle with in my own work is trying to understand what actual effect these large multilateral agencies have on the ground. What is the World Bank actually doing in Ghana? What are they actually doing in Kenya?" said Hanson. "Does the money get distributed? Who does it go to? Having more Kenyans or Ghanaians who could report on these things and look into them in terms of transparency and accountability would be incredibly helpful."

Malaria: A Disease of the Poor

"Malaria was, to be honest, not a disease that was really on my radar," said Hanson. "I had, in a way, discounted its importance to what has happened on the continent." At a children's critical care unit in Nyanza Province, one of the poorest areas in Kenya with one of the highest rates of HIV and malaria, she saw beds filled with sick children. "This was shocking to me."

When a family member is stricken with malaria, the burden of care is typically falls upon the mother, who often must travel long distances to the nearest hospital—"some of them had walked hours with a sick child," said Hanson—leaving their other children at home and farms largely untended.

"When these women have to leave their farms to come to the clinic, they're losing work days on the farm," said Hanson. "That just means that their farms are less productive. They have less money to send their children to school, give their children medical care, and feed their children."

"These macro-political issues—disputed elections, post-election violence—are actually connected to daily issues like malaria infections, hospital capacity rates, agricultural yields, and without a government that can address those things it is very difficult to see how a place like Kenya can move forward," concluded Hanson.

Drafted by Sajid Anwar and edited by Meaghan Parker.

 
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