Jess Lees, emergency response manager at the Australian Red Cross. Photo by: Peter Caton / Australian Red Cross

Jess Lees is not your ordinary 29 year old. As the emergency response manager for the Australian Red Cross, she has seen the worst of the worst, with a unique perspective of global fragility that others her age, living comfortable in Melbourne, could not possibly have.

Over the past seven years, Lees has seen firsthand the impact disasters have on human lives. In May she returned to Australia from Somaliland, where she provided support for the food crisis continuing to unfold in East Africa. It was the worst she says she has seen.

On returning to Australia, Lees was overwhelmed by the lack of awareness and donor support in her home country to assist the millions struggling to survive food shortages and famine.

She is determined to do everything she can — from speaking to family and friends to giving workshops and media interviews — to change this. She discussed with Devex her perspectives on Australian attitudes toward East Africa and why it is a crisis that is difficult to gain local traction. Here is the interview, edited for length and clarity.

What is the strategy for Australian NGOs, including the Australian Red Cross, to improve visibility on the East Africa crisis in Australia?

The strategy for us at this stage has been to simply raise the profile of the crisis in the mainstream media. We haven’t focused on the reasons for donating to one event over another.

On our recent visit to Somaliland, we took Australian journalists, a cameraman and a photographer to produce stories for publication in Australia. Publication has been staggered since our return, but the response was positive: We saw a spike in donations over that period.

The appeal did increase substantially from what it was when it first opened. But it still doesn’t compare to appeals we have had for rapid onset crises in the Pacific.

East Africa has almost been invisible in the Australian media. In comparison, when you look at places like the U.K., it was everywhere. There was a news story every day about the situation and an appeal raised a huge amount of money within just a few days.

Here in Australia, it has been almost impossible to find information. Even talking to people within my friendship circle, when I explained I have been to Somaliland, they have had no idea why I was there. I have had to explain that there was a massive drought and famine. The comment they invariably make is that there is always famine in Africa — even from people I would consider savvy. It is a frustrating situation.

Globally, we are seeing a range of humanitarian crises ranging from natural disasters to warfare to drought. Do you think there is donor fatigue?

I think it is a combination of a few things. Disinterest, fatigue, and I think it is a lack of understanding of the core issues and what it means — a lack contextual understanding that we don’t seem to have access to unless we seek it out.

The concept of millions of people on the brink of starvation on the other side of the world is a nameless and faceless statistic. In Australia, we are not confronted by it on a daily basis. And if there is no story attached to it, I can kind of understand why the public are reluctant to donate.

But the crisis in East Africa is also something that is not going to go away anytime soon. It’s hard to tell a story about how we can fix famine quickly, and this makes it a harder sell to donors.

What about the role government plays? How does the role of the U.K. government, for example, compare to Australia in generating public awareness and support?

Government definitely has an important role to play. To a large extent, I can understand looking at priority regions and the comparative advantage Australia could bring for the Indo-Pacific region. But there is also the question of humanitarian imperative and where the need is greatest.

When you look at somewhere like the Horn of Africa and the scale of the food crisis and what is happening in places like Nigeria, South Sudan and Yemen, there really is a humanitarian imperative there.

There is press associated with Australian government funding, which makes it into the mainstream media. If they are giving funding to an Australian Aid organization, there is increased awareness around it. But there are still a range of organizations ramping up their communication around the East Africa crisis, and yet we are still not getting enough traction.

People are also being bombarded with negative stories, both on mainstream media and social media. Can this factor into donor fatigue?

It’s a valid point. The global landscape is a scary place at the moment, and every time you turn on the TV, Yemen, Syria or North Korea are there to scare you. The scale and enormity of it is overwhelming.

And a million people in the Horn of Africa on the brink of famine — it is another thing that is difficult to grasp and comprehend. It can be too big to grapple with.

That’s why I think it is so important to try and break it down to personal stories. It is not the story of everyone as a whole. Each person has their own story, and it makes the situation less about the numbers and puts a face to the crisis.

Given this will be an ongoing crisis, what is the strategy to improve and maintain awareness to ensure continued support and funding?

What we have to look critically at is how we show the story and the crisis evolving, and develop a narrative that demonstrates that it is not just perpetual famine. An interesting example is that famine was declared back in March or April in an isolated area of South Sudan. A huge amount of humanitarian financing globally went into South Sudan after the declaration of famine. Famine now, as of a couple weeks ago, no longer exists. It is an important story about the impact we can make with a coordinated effort.

It is just frustrating that we have to wait for the tipping point, the declaration of famine, for the mechanism to kick in and scale up. People often wait for the “f” word to sit up and take notice. With drought continuing in the Horn of Africa, we are expecting more declarations of famine over the coming months, which will lead to a spike in coverage from the mainstream media. The challenge in this political and global climate is that bubbling insecurity on the brink of famine is easily pushed off media interest in favor of fast-evolving, volatile situations.

How do you personally aim to bring the reality of East Africa home to Australia?

It’s the challenge of working in this space. How do you connect and tell stories in a way that resonates with Australians? Telling stories about people who are relatable — individuals with goals and aspirations — is important.  

That has been something I have found in discussions I have had with people and presentations I have given. Sharing personal stories of what I experienced allows people to connect with the crisis. It reduces the distance and makes it seem real. That is a strategy that works, and the Australian Red Cross is utilizing it, with our aid workers telling their stories as much as possible.

I’ve worked quite a bit in Africa, as well as in the Pacific and Asia. But this was the worst that I have ever seen. It was confronting how dark it was, as people were facing another failed rainy season. And this was going to put areas into famine. We met people who hadn’t eaten in six days.

There was one situation that hit me hard. We met a woman who had a herd of 50 goats before the drought, and over the course of the past three years, her goats had gradually died until she was down to one goat. We were with her in her hut and asked to see her goat. We were there to see the little goat, sitting under the hot sun, take its last breath. It died right there in front of us.

It was an extremely powerful moment where her livelihood was over. This was her last means of generating an income. It was symbolic of the personal impact of this crisis.

How is the fundraising progressing? Where are you now compared to where you would have liked to be?

We really didn’t know what we were in for and didn’t have expectations. But without expectations we have probably surpassed them. We knew that it was going to be hard, that we needed to invest and it would be a slow burner and continued push. We need to do more work to create links between donations we have received and how it helps, as well as the crisis as it continues to unfold and deteriorate.

There is going to be more famine and more need for donors. And we will continue to tell the stories from East Africa to raise awareness.

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About the author

  • Lisa Cornish

    Lisa Cornish is a Senior Reporter based in Canberra, where she focuses on the Australian aid community. Lisa formerly worked with News Corp Australia as a data journalist for the national network and was published throughout Australia in major metropolitan and regional newspapers, including the Daily Telegraph in Melbourne, Herald Sun in Melbourne, Courier-Mail in Brisbane, and online through Lisa additionally consults with Australian government providing data analytics, reporting and visualization services. Lisa was awarded the 2014 Journalist of the Year by the New South Wales Institute of Surveyors.