After a slow initial response, Canadians are now giving generously to the relief effort in drought-stricken East Africa, aid organizations say.

In fact, individual donations and fundraising efforts have spiked since the UN declared a famine in the region last week.

Donations are expected to increase further when the Muslim holy month of Ramadan begins next week as Ramadan is a time when charitable giving is especially encouraged.

The worst drought in 60 years has led to famine in parts of Somalia and tens of thousands of  people are currently fleeing to refugee camps in neighbouring Ethiopia and Kenya.

As many as 11.3 million people in the region urgently need food aid, according to the World Food Program and the UN says $300 million is needed in the next two months to stop the spread of famine in the Horn of Africa.

The Canadian government has already contributed $72 million to the region this year. Last week, International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda announced that the government would match donations made to the relief effort  between July 6 and September 16.

Everyone wants to help according to Sallah Hamdani of Islamic Relief, a Toronto-based charity, who says even young children are pitching in.

"We're getting 10 year olds calling us asking, 'what can I do?' I told one 10 or 11 year old to offer to cut his neighbours' grass if they donate to the East African appeal," Hamdani says.

Thanks to individual donations and community organizations, Hamdani says the aid group has already raised more that $1 million.

Donations will go towards emergency food and water distribution in Mogadishu where the organization has been present since 1994.

Spike in donations

si-donation-increase-220-cp

Some 10 tonnes of relief food from the World Food Programme (WFP) is unloaded after landing in Mogadishu airport, Wednesday July 27, 2011. (Feisal Omar/ Associated Press)

"We saw a real spike [in donations] after the UN declared it as a famine," says David Morley, president of UNICEF Canada. "The fact that this is the first time in 27 years that we've used that word really caught people's attention."

UNICEF Canada has raised about $700,000 so far and UNICEF hopes to raise $300 million internationally.

Although donations were slow at first, Morley is confident that momentum is growing for the relief effort.

"More and more groups are approaching us wanting to do benefits," Morley says. He adds that the aid group will appeal directly to donors through a social media campaign.

The money raised by UNICEF Canada will go towards emergency food relief in Kenya and Somalia.

Heidi Vallinga of Human Concern International, a Canadian charity based in Ottawa, says the group is relying on community events in Ottawa, Toronto and Montreal to raise money for food and water tankers in the northeast region of Somalia.

"It started off fairly slow but now people are becoming a lot more aware of it so donations have been coming in," Vallinga says. "We're still hoping to raise $1 million in the next month."

Ramadan giving

Aid agencies are looking forward to the start of Ramadan on August 1 when they expect to see an even bigger increase in donations.

"Fundraising won't truly begin until the month of Ramadan starts," Hamdani says. "A lot of our donors will give during the month of generosity."

Hamdani says it is customary to give charity during the month-long religious celebration, which is marked by Muslims around the world.

"It's very fitting to give during Ramadan," Hamdani says. "You can even say that it is more blessed to give at that time, in this month."

UNICEF Canada and Human Concern International also expect to see a spike in donations next month.

"Its one of our biggest times for donations," Vallinga says.

Morely hopes the giving will continue into the middle of September, when the government's matching program ends.

"People pay more attention to world news after labour day," Morely says. "I don't believe there is a donor fatigue issue. It's just that if people don't know it's happening, they can't respond."

Urgent need

Nicholas Moyer of the Humanitarian Coalition, an umbrella organization that includes Canadian branches of Oxfam, Save the Children and CARE, says he's glad to see donations are increasing and he hopes that will keep up.

"It's really important that Canadians understand how valuable their donations are," Moyer says. "We have a real opportunity to save lives." To date, the groups in the Humanitarian Coalition have raised approximately $2.6 million.

Moyer says these organizations are still focused on emergency relief efforts in Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya.

"The situation is critical and it's only getting worse.The first and immediate needs are food, water and shelter," Moyer says. "I hope as they continue to find out more about this disaster, Canadians will dig down deep and continue to give," Moyer says.