Given the economic woes in the US and Europe, and the prevailing view that the larger developing countries are doing comparatively well these days, it’s fair to ask what these emerging economies are providing in the way of assistance. In some cases, the answer is gratifying: the Turkish public has donated $200 million. In other cases, the response seems paltry: China gave just $16 million to relief efforts and yet was lavishly praised by the World Food Program. South Africa and Russia have each given about $3 million, and Japan (obviously facing its own disaster recovery costs) $5 million.

Other countries fall somewhere in between: Saudi Arabia has given $50 million and Iran $25 million. The African Union promised to give $50 million, and yet was taken to task by The Economist for being miserly. Numbers from Brazil and India do not seem to be available (if anyone has them, please comment below), although the World Food Programme notes that, “Despite significant economic progress in the past decade, India is home to about 25 percent of the world’s hungry poor.”

To find out just what impact media coverage has on such donations, it would be fascinating to correlate these totals with a media content analysis in each country. Such a study doesn’t seem to be available. But what we do know is that by raising awareness ahead of time, the press can also help prepare the public for disasters and mitigate the losses. This was one of the memes surrounding news coverage of Hurricane Irene—while some critics claimed there was too much hype, defenders pointed out that, hyperbole aside, journalists provided a lot useful information given.

In contrast, one of the concerns surrounding the East Africa famine is that it was predicted in advance, but still not enough was done to prevent the disaster. In a column for the journal Nature, Chris Funk of the Famine Emergency Warning System (FEWS-Net, a project supported by the US Agency for International Development) pointed out that, as early as the summer of 2010, “We knew that such an event could bring trouble, and we issued an alert that East Africa might experience severe droughts.” These predictions were based on the known impacts of La Nina, the weakening of local resilience due to poor rains and high food prices in recent years, and the drying of March-to-June rains in the region due to warming in the Indian Ocean, which Funk ascribes to climate change.

“The [warning] technology has outpaced the response systems,” Funk told Scidev.net. In a column focused on the Horn of Africa reprinted by the Guardian, SciDev.net’s editor, David Dickson, made the case for improving science communications, claiming that scientists need to improve their outreach skills and journalists need to do a better job of engaging policymakers—arguments that sound all too familiar to anyone who has followed the climate change debate.

And that is the elephant in the room: What will the impact of climate change be on food insecurity, both in the region and around the world? The World Food Programme has produced a map with a good graphical representation of the global impacts (although it is a little hard to read online). Scientific studies seem to emphasize how difficult they are to predict: a paper by Josef Schmidhuber and Francesco Tubiello estimates that between 5 million and 170 million people will be put at increased risk of hunger by 2080.

Nor is the impact of climate change in the region straightforward. FEWS-Net’s Funk warned in his column for Nature:

The global climate models used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change were never intended to provide rainfall trend projections for every region. These models say that East Africa will become wetter, yet observations show substantial declines in spring rainfall in recent years. Despite this, several agencies are building long-term plans on the basis of the forecast of wetter conditions. This could lead to agricultural development and expansion in areas that will become drier. More climate science based on regional observations could be helpful in addressing these challenges.

The Horn of Africa unfortunately has a long history of famines. Agricultural yields in the region are low, and improving them is vital, but there is little sign of that happening so far. The situation is exacerbated by rapid population growth, military conflict and political instability. No doubt more news coverage would help with the current relief efforts, but the larger question is tougher to answer: What can the media do to help create long-term solutions?

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James Fahn is the executive director of Internews's Earth Journalism Network and the author of A Land on Fire.