by Jacob Kushner
For many news consumers the name Somalia has become synonymous with statelessness, violence, intractability. Each year Al-Shabab kills hundreds of civilians and terrorizes many more in Mogadishu and beyond. Yet for all the attention on Somalia’s many problems, news audiences might be surprised to learn that when it comes to ending impunity for sexual violence, some regions of Somalia have achieved remarkable progress. In Hargeisa, Somaliland–the self-declared state in northwest Somalia–a hospital was launched to give women immediate medical attention by sensitized doctors. Victims also get support from trained psychologists and social workers; an in-house police office at which to report their case in private, sometimes to female officers; and a public prosecutor with whom they can discuss hopes for justice that transcends the traditional, patriarchal clan system.
This model–which a British human rights organization adapted from a successful program in Manchester–is increasing prosecutions for sex crimes that once went almost entirely unpunished. In Mogadishu in 2013, the United Nations counted 1,700 cases of rape, with only two convictions. That same year in Somaliland, of 326 reported cases of sexual violence, 171 were prosecuted and 54 resulted in convictions, all thanks to this one hospital and its affiliates. Learning from that success, Somali and international advocates are attempting to launch a similar program at a major Mogadishu hospital.
In an article for Participant Media, I explained how the program’s creators managed to overcome initial resistance by some Somali authorities and doctors. I also explained the model’s limitations and the challenges of trying to replicate it in far more populous Mogadishu. This style of reporting has come to be known as “solutions journalism,” and it’s built around understanding not just what’s failing, but also what is working–and why. Too often we report singularly on problems without taking the time to explain when viable solutions to them exist. If health and law enforcement professionals have found a way to bring rape perpetrators to justice and help victims recover, it deserves a mention in our stories. Solutions journalism doesn’t argue against covering abuses of power, conflict or corruption. It merely asserts that unless we also shed light on potential solutions to those problems, we haven’t quite finished the job. The Solutions Journalism Network, a non-profit co-founded by veteran reporter and editor Tina Rosenberg, describes it as “rigorous reporting on responses to social problems.”
I say all this as someone who has spent most of the last decade exposing problems: corruption in governance, violence against immigrants and other minorities, the failures of foreign aid. After Haiti’s 2010 earthquake, I spent two years tracking some of the billions of dollars the U.S. government and American charities pledged to help Haiti recover, much of which was spent ineffectively by U.S. agencies and contractors and little of which ever went through Haitian hands. Some were importing soap from abroad at great cost–and handing it out for free at the expense of Haitian soap manufacturers who struggled to compete. So I wrote about a new, public database of Haitian suppliers that aid agencies could use to quickly find Haitian companies that could procure the soap and other supplies locally and thus reinvigorate rather than undermine Haiti’s local economy. After my article appeared, I noticed that other outlets also began to question why so little aid to Haiti actually went through Haitian hands.
Solutions journalism also offers a refreshing new approach to combating international news fatigue. After the 2016 election, several editors told me they planned to give less play to foreign news. Responses like the following email, which I received two months after President Donald Trump took office, became common:
“Hi Jacob–I’ve got some bad news, I’m afraid: We’ve decided to kill your Congo article. With Trump dominating the news right now, it’s really hard to find space in the magazine for other topics.”
International reporters today are frustrated that they can’t get Americans to care about the rest of the world. Part of the reason may be that coverage of places like Haiti or East Africa is either shallow or relentlessly negative, often portraying people as passive victims. Solutions stories restore agency to the people we cover because they often show people solving their own problems. Solutions stories tend to be surprising and counterintuitive. And they are by no means some fluffy alternative to hard-hitting reporting. To the contrary, they seek to replace a type of lackluster international reporting that paints any half-baked idea as a magic cure to poverty or disease. Solutions journalism leads us to critical questions about the status quo: why, for instance, do international charities continue to spend so much money on disaster relief when scientific evidence suggests it’s far more cost-effective to save or improve lives through preventative interventions such as distributing anti-malarial mosquito nets–or even just handing out cash?
A few years ago, Ryan Lenora Brown reported for the Christian Science Monitor how unconditional cash transfers were not only giving low-income Africans in Lesotho control over their own lives, but were proving more effective than other types of aid. In true solutions journalism fashion, she also examined cash transfers’ limitations– namely, that most research on cash transfers has focused on short-term benefits. And she painted a picture of where cash transfers were heading: toward government companion programs that might make cash transfers a viable long-term solution to several facets of poverty.
Another solutions journalism story: Across the globe, 2.4 billion people lack proper sanitation, which contributes to thousands of deaths each year, according to the World Health Organization. But rather than reporting on the problem as intractable, last year NPR’s Planet Money told the story of how scientists managed to break up Dakar, Senegal’s so-called “poop cartels” that kept the price of waste removal too high for many Dakar residents to afford.
Solutions journalism demands that we take a critical look at what’s truly working, and why. A new super-medicine? Let’s explain how scientists discovered it and why they think it might work where others have not. A new push to hand out computer tablets to African students? Is there any evidence to suggest that traditional paper textbooks don’t work just as well?
Too often, international reporting elevates good intentions or catchy ideas without investigating whether or not there’s evidence to suggest they actually work. It’s a question we need to ask. We know that after a disaster, many people feel the urge to donate, and we often encourage them to do so in our reporting. But research shows that post-disaster aid is one of the least effective ways to save a life. If we don’t report on the many, more cost-effective ways to do good, doesn’t that make us part of the problem?
Incorporating solutions angles into our reporting might even drive more traffic to international stories: Researchers who examined thousands of New York Times articles found that news framed positively is far more likely to go viral than negatively framed stories. When done right, solutions reporting offers a refreshing way for the public to reengage in international news at a time when many news outlets are only looking inward.
Jacob Kushner is an international freelance journalist and a member of the Solutions Journalism Network. He began covering East Africa for The Associated Press in 2013 as an Overseas Press Club N.S. Bienstock Memorial Fellow based in Nairobi. Visit jacobkushner.com to read more.