Starvation Representation and Power Relations

The Western media’s representation of African famines through shocking images of starving babies has been a matter of controversy. The media and humanitarian organizations, on the one hand, claim that famine is part of African realities that needs to be reported; and the usage of shocking imageries responds to the necessity of fundraising campaigns for the sake of alleviating suffering. Critics, on the other hand, charge this practice of being unethical and dehumanizing for the sufferers, not to mention that it conveys a biased and oversimplified representation of the phenomenon. Despite the controversy, more than forty years later, the same horrifying images continue flowing on our TV screens at every occurrence of famine, justified with the same argument and criticized with the same charges. One of the reasons of this sterility is the fact that the debate is enclosed within one perspective: the Western representation of African realities. Throughout this time, the debate has not been able to open up to other perspectives such as the African representation of their own realities. This paper examines the controversy by examining the way in which Western media on the one hand and local media portrayed the 2005 phenomenon of starvation in Niger. The paper argues that that the media coverage of the event of starvation in Niger in 2005 as well as the responses that it generated were determined by the discourse that has been historically constructed about starvation among the targeted audience. This argument is based on the assumption that in order for the media to make an event intelligible to its audience, it has to construct it in a narrative that fits what is historically considered the “true” knowledge about that event within the audience. The responses in terms of practice that will derive from this whole process of representation will also be reflective of this “regime of truth” established by the discourse.


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