Most rich world governments were falling over themselves to be seen supporting the popular “Make Poverty History” campaign at its height just a few years ago. Their feeble response so far to the famine in East Africa suggests that many of them have consigned “Make Poverty History” itself to history.
To pick unfairly on one example, Italy (a G8 power that signed up to the “Make Poverty History” agenda and is the former colonial power in Somalia - the epicentre of the famine) has contributed precisely nothing to the relief effort so far. Its failure to offer assistance has attracted far less attention than Berlusconi’s bunga bunga-ing but is of much greater importance to humanity and signals a new low for a country that currently specialises in shamelessness. Other governments appear to be hiding behind the global economic crisis and the undoubted difficulties of getting relief to areas controlled by the lunatic Al-Shabab militia.
In reality, neither of these factors offers a defensible excuse for failing to help. The sums of money required to deal with the famine are miniscule even in times of austerity in the rich world. For example, the shortfall in emergency funds requested by the United Nations’ World Food Programme (WFP), the biggest provider of food aid to the region, is $300 million – roughly a quarter of what Hull City Council will spend on emptying bins this year.
The Al-Qaeda affiliated Al-Shabab is unquestionably a bigger problem. It has over recent years murdered fourteen WFP staff and expelled all Western and UN aid organisations from the areas it controls. But Al-Shabab consists of multiple factions, some of which are less hard-line than others. Some of these elements have now asked the international aid agencies to return and the WFP has already gained secure access to some of the militia’s strongholds in southern Somalia.
It’s almost thirty years since there was a comparable event in the region and this one is the worst for sixty years.
Apart from the colossal moral implications of failing to assist millions of starving fellow human beings when it is well within our means to do so, such an attitude is short-sighted in the extreme and works against the outside world’s self-interest. The risk that Al-Shabab will steal some of the aid provided to the areas under its control (an infuriating fact of life when dealing with humanitarian emergencies) is far outweighed by the “hearts and minds” propaganda value of showing the Somali people that the international community cares about them beyond waging a “War on Terror” against the extremists in their midst. Outside food aid will further undermine the already shaky support for the Al-Shabab leaders who have visibly failed to provide for the people they rule over. Once the crisis is over, continued outside engagement could capitalise on this weakness and help to create the stable governance that is essential to avert such catastrophic events in future. Seizing the opportunity presented by the crisis to turn around the terrorist and pirate haven of Somalia would be a huge gain for the world.
Although the victims of the famine are mostly ethnic Somalis, it should also be remembered that the majority of them are actually located outside of the parts of Somalia controlled by Al-Shabab and in neighbouring Kenya and Ethiopia. The efforts of these countries undermine the inevitable jaded arguments of some Westerners in response to the East African famine that it “happens all the time” and “they need to do more to help themselves”. In fact it is almost thirty years since there was a comparable event in the region and this one is the worst for sixty years, making it about as frequent an occurrence as a major war in Europe. Moreover, since the “Band Aid” era famine of the mid-1980s, the region’s people and governments have worked hard, in cooperation with the international aid agencies, to protect themselves against drought and famine. One example is the seeding programme that has turned scrub into agriculturally productive land in Ethiopia, which, according to the WFP’s Executive Director Josette Sheeran, has meant only a third as many people there have been affected as previously would have been the case. Another is the Kenyan government’s huge school meals programme for drought afflicted areas.
Fortunately for those of us keener on wasting time when we should be working instead, the miracle of the Internet means doing our bit requires considerably less effort than that made by the people of East Africa. For the cost of a sandwich and the same amount of clicks as an Amazon order, you can provide the food required to save a starving child without leaving your chair. To find some of those who will make good use of your pennies and who still have not given up on making poverty history go to www.redcross.org.uk , www.wfp.org and www.uk.msf.org.
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