Helping with the famine: Why is Africa not doing more?

In all the finger pointing over the shockingly slow response to the famine in East Africa, some of the worst offenders get off far too lightly, Africa's own governments.

In all the finger pointing over the shockingly slow response to the famine in East Africa, some of the worst offenders get off far too lightly — Africa's own governments.

The UN has been desperately trying to raise $2.3 billion to help save millions of lives in that drought and famine afflicted corner of the world. But most governments on the continent have scarcely blinked in concern.

Blame in humanitarian crises such as this is almost always directed solely at the rich West, which has so much to offer. Unfortunately, this narrow vision encourages others in a position to help to simply duck their responsibilities.

Exhibit A is the sluggish response by the Africa Union and its 54 member states, five of which find themselves threatened by the spreading famine

The AU's initial pledge this summer was to offer up a risible $500,000.

Somali women queue to receive non-food items from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Mogadishu in August 2011. (Reuters)

Then, last week at its headquarters in Addis Ababa, the organization finally got around to holding its first ever "pledging conference," to which all African leaders were summoned.

The result fell even below AU standards. Only four leaders bothered to show up, three of them from stricken nations.

Most of the countries pledged nothing at all. Only 22 came up with a total that fell far below expectations: $51 million.

To put this in perspective, this means that all African governments combined, both in the North and sub-Sahara, have pledged less than Canada. In fact, they have committed to just a little over half of what the British public on its own has been willing to pony up.

Palace guards

Looked at another way, the AU commitment isn't even close to the $350 million the Organization of Islamic Co-operation pledged after Turkish Prime Minister RecepErdogan called the crisis "a litmus test for all humanity."

And before anyone rushes to give the Africa Union the benefit of the doubt, because the continent is "too poor, too underdeveloped," beware that such a condescending attitude is not one Africans themselves appreciate.

In fact, African civic groups are strongly criticizing the response of their governments at this point and insist that AU members do have the funds to support more seriously the global aid effort.

They point to the continent's $2.2-trillion annual economy, not to mention the oil and mineral wealth hoarded by certain countries over the years.

They also point out the notoriously lavish spending by many of these same governments on their own leaders as well as on sports stadiums and other prestige projects. Then there is the estimated $10 billion a year spent on pampered militaries and palace guards.

A core weakness

Let's be clear, here. There is, indeed, frightening levels of poverty in Africa and I certainly believe that much of the continent remains in need of sustained help from outside.

But this crisis has exposed again one of Africa's core weaknesses — the absence of any shared vision or direction at a higher (African Union) level by too many states that lack good governance and public accountability.

We need to be honest about such flaws. One encouraging sign is that Africans on their own have started to raise relief support, often guided by social networks.

Worth noting here is that many are also denouncing the failure of their own states to confront the crisis.

"It seems these issues do not touch them at all," Nicanor Sabula, the head of the East African Civil Society Forum, lamented after the dismally attended AU donor's conference.

"We have blown our chance to demonstrate to the international community that the governments of Africa will stand by their people and support them in times of crisis."

Added Imtiz Sooliman, head of the African-based Gift of Giver's Foundation, "I think we are sending a very wrong message to the world.

"If Africa doesn't care about Africa, how do you expect other countries and other continents to care about the continent?"

Speaking out

The AU leadership tried to offset the disappointment over the low amount of pledges by pointing out that $300 million was promised to the region by the Africa Development Bank. But this money is for long-term development, not emergency aid, which is now what is so desperately needed.

When it comes to this emergency, many Africans are especially disappointed by the response of the financially stronger nations of the AU. Oil-rich Nigeria, for example, pledged only $2 million, while South Africa, which dazzled the world with its hosting of the World Cup festivities last year, is offering a mere $1.2 million.

African Union Chairperson and Equatorial Guinea's President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo in Sudan in July 2011. (Reuters)

Some Africans want to see these shirkers publicly blamed and shamed by international aid groups and the UN. But few of these international groups are likely to admit openly to the bitter frustration I've so often heard them speak about in private.

These international aid groups worry that criticizing specific governments will cost them the access they need to the populations they seek to help. More importantly, they fear that too much carping on their part might blunt the Western empathy for giving.

These are serious concerns. But surely it's a time to call out some of these African leaders on the wilful neglect of their humanitarian duties? As many more Africans themselves seem to be doing.

"Twitter has been going crazy. People all over the continent have been saying this is not enough," says Sara Mitaru, a Kenyan singer-songwriter, and a leader of the fast-growing African's4Africa Campaign.

"We need to keep up the pressure on our leaders to see that this is an African problem, which we have the power to solve."

I not going to predict this outpouring will spark an "African Spring." But something powerful may be stirring across the continent as offers of individual support pour in via those same pesky social media networks that have stirred up so much action elsewhere.

At the same time, enormous amounts of international aid are still going to be needed in the coming months and Western countries will have to ante up even more than they have so far to avoid a truly nightmarish tragedy.

But the growth of Africa's civic groups in taking on such fund-raising campaigns and speaking out against state indifference is something we should all applaud. It is also something African leaders may be well advised to take heed of.