Aid to East Africa slow and inadequate

The United Nations has officially declared a famine in parts of Somalia. Yes, a famine, in the 21st century and in a world that produces more than enough food to feed everyone.

August 9, 2011

By Robert Fox
Executive Director, Oxfam Canada

The following op-ed originally appeared in producer.com on August 4, 2011

 

The United Nations has officially declared a famine in parts of Somalia.

Yes, a famine, in the 21st century and in a world that produces more than enough food to feed everyone.

Because of years of internal conflict and stalled development, Somalia already had levels of malnutrition so high as to be in a permanent state of emergency. By the time the UN calls a famine, lives are already being lost on a massive scale.

A two year drought, the worst in 60 years, has caused massive loss of crops and food shortages. In certain areas, the drought has killed up to 90 percent of livestock, devastating the livelihoods and slashing the purchasing power of pastoralist communities.

The expectation that the next harvest will be 50 percent less than usual is fueling record price inflation, pushing food even further out of reach. Aggravating the crisis is the conflict and lawlessness that is rife in Somalia, putting ever more people at risk at the same time that it impedes humanitarian action.

The famine in Somalia and the rapidly escalating food crisis throughout East Africa may be a short-term result of drought, failed crops and conflict, but they are the long-term result of political failure.

Governments and the international community have failed to tackle chronic poverty and invest in sustainable livelihoods. They have failed to encourage local food production and support women food producers who, ironically, are the first to go hungry when times are tough.

They have failed to deal seriously with climate change and support adaptation to the new normal of recurring droughts. They have failed to build adequate social safety nets and early warning systems to shield vulnerable populations from disasters.

The international community’s response to this humanitarian crisis has been slow and woefully inadequate.

With 12 million lives on the line and an estimated $800 million funding gap, Canada’s leadership in announcing $50 million for the region is to be applauded. The international community must act now to provide immediate humanitarian assistance to those in dire need of food, water, shelter and sanitation. There is no time to waste.

But while humanitarian assistance can save millions of lives, it will not alone help people withstand the next shock. The famine in Somalia is a wake-up call. We must immediately address the root causes that make people vulnerable to hunger in the first place, and create a better future in which everyone has enough to eat, always.

This means investing in livelihoods and giving women farmers the resources they need to unlock their potential to increase food production. We must also help developing countries build their resilience to shocks by investing in early warning systems, food reserves, disaster risk reduction and climate change adaption.

Donor countries should help developing countries build strong social protection systems to make sure that when natural disasters hit — which they will, increasingly, because of climate change — vulnerable populations have the means to cope.

We cannot ignore the deeper dimensions of this crisis: the need to address the equity and good government challenges as well as the production, access and resilience challenges. Amartya Sen, Nobel Prize recipient and Oxfam’s honourary adviser, has said there has never been a famine in a democracy.

The world must act urgently to avert a human catastrophe in east Africa. But we must also act with resolve and integrity to tackle the underlying causes of this disaster if we are to ensure this latest famine in east Africa is its last.

The time to act is now.