Famine in Africa: Global mismanagement of the first order

The drought in the Horn of Africa is a natural disaster — but the famine is global mismanagement on an astonishing scale, Brian Stewart argues.

One of the most striking aspects of this latest famine in the Horn of Africa is the irritated, even fuming, response of so many readers and viewers to the humanitarian crisis.

A significant minority, at least, seem to feel that another round of emergency aid in East Africa is simply too much to ask for, as little there is ever likely to change.

I wish we could talk.

I don't buy such utter pessimism. But I do sympathize with the fatigue and frustrations that repeated failures to prevent such killer droughts in that part of the world have given rise to.

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How can I not? Twenty-seven years ago I stood amid the endless lines of dead livestock and starving famine refugees in these same drought-stricken areas, and I've returned numerous times over the years to cover similar humanitarian stories.

The images I see on TV now are like a bad flashback. In Ethiopia, the Borana people had an expression, "tears of blood," to help explain the dehydrated land, the malnourished children and the mothers starving themselves to save food for their infants.

Watching these impoverished, brave and incredibly resilient people so beaten into the ground by nature and neglect was pitiful to endure back then. It's more infuriating now.

Let's be clear

But we need to be clear about what is so shocking here and we must make sure not to let the horrifying predictions being warned about pitch us into a generalized defeatism about aid, or even about Africa's future.

Somalian women wait at a refugee centre in Mogadishu in July 2011. (Reuters)

Spare a thought for two nations, Kenya and Ethiopia, now struggling to deal with their own droughts and food crises — along with the vast spillover from neighbouring Somalia and its perfect storm of famine, war and mass displacement.

Kenya, with a population of 37 million, is carrying an extraordinary burden, feeding nearly 2.5 million malnourished people of its own as well as over 500,000 refugees from Somalia, currently averaging about 30,000 new arrivals a month.

It's a humanitarian caseload Canadians can't even imagine.

And what of Ethiopia? Despite its often desperate image, it has made substantial development progress in the past decade and is able to help feed not only 4.5 million Ethiopians on food relief, but also 260,000 refugees.

As for those large humanitarian groups we always hear from at times like these, we should be clear about two key facts.

Firstly, they've been warning of a coming crisis, possible famine, since the beginning of the year. What's more, they've already saved thousands of lives and now face the daunting task of helping anywhere from 10 to 12 million malnourished people through the crisis.

Secondly, we'd be in an incomparably worst state now had they not made the progress they had in recent years underpinning development in the drought region.


Ideally, these groups would have funds at hand to face these recurring natural disasters without having to resort to desperate scrambles for help year after year.

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Instead, however, desperately needed humanitarian aid to the region is underfunded by $1 billion.

That's right, despite all the warnings, governments — Western, African and others — haven't come up with even half the total needed to pay for emergency relief over the next five months.

Let's grasp what's involved here — lack of funds, lack of attention, lack of public understanding, all of which could soon translate into the absence of relief food, water, medicine and shelter that could make this a humanitarian debacle of the first order.

But here is where I sympathize with all those frustrated to the point of almost throwing up their hands.

I certainly don't blame the humanitarian workers trying to shake us out of our lethargy, nor the many victims of the drought, the small farmers and pastoralists who stand to be wiped out.

My anger is aimed primarily at governments who aren't doing their jobs and who should have been anticipating a crisis such as this. What we are witnessing now in the Horn of Africa is global mismanagement on an astonishing scale.

It is mismanagement not just for reasons of human empathy, but for allowing natural catastrophes to spread into ever widening waves of environmental decay, homelessness, disease and civil strife.

Famine and foreigners

As Peter Gill, the British journalist and author of the superb book, Famine and Foreigners: Ethiopia since Live Aid, wrote this week, it took months of increasingly dire warnings to finally get movement.

"Sophisticated early warning systems that foresaw the onset of famine have been in place for years," he said. "But still the world waits until it is very nearly too late before taking real action — and then paying for it."

Sure, we've seen many natural disasters in recent years, not to mention the current financial crises and scandals that divert us. But that hardly excuses government indifference or lethargy when report after report states that more than 10 million people are simply running out of food and water.

Oxfam Canada today characterized international donor response as "slow and inadequate," while its U.K. office blasted the "wilful neglect" of many European governments. Of the $1 billion the UN says is needed immediately, less than $200 million has come through.

Of course Somalia's anarchy remains a huge part of the problem. But there are also other systemic problems that the world has to confront.

One is that Western governments tend to equate emergency aid with useful political headlines and so they wait until the media is all fired up before acting. Often these pledges are later quietly forgotten.

Another is that only a few governments do most of the heavy lifting.

What has the African Union pledged for this crisis? Nothing in terms of funding. South Africa and Nigeria? The same. The rich Gulf states? Not a single donation at this point. Most of the Middle East? Very little. And so on.

Put bluntly, almost all countries should be expected to give some amount for a crisis such as this, according to ability. And we also need more international resources employed well ahead of time, to prepare for these inevitable natural disasters, and less addiction to a media presence.

But for now, while waiting for governments everywhere to do their jobs properly, there really is no escaping our own individual responsibility. Is there?