Disgraceful failure to respond to east Africa hunger crisis

UN says humanitarian emergency is largest since the end of the second World War

Nyibol Lual (13) helps her family to prepare the land for cultivation in Panthau, Northern Bahr al Ghazal, South Sudan.  Photograph: Albert Gonzalez Farran/AFP/Getty

Nyibol Lual (13) helps her family to prepare the land for cultivation in Panthau, Northern Bahr al Ghazal, South Sudan. Photograph: Albert Gonzalez Farran/AFP/Getty

 

Across east Africa, along a belt that stretches from South Sudan through Kenya and Ethiopia to Somalia, a staggering 24 million people are facing malnutrition or starvation. A deadly combination of conflict, recurring severe drought and high food prices are at the root of the crisis. But identifying the causes is one thing. Mobilising the world’s energy and resources to save people’s lives is, as the scandalously inadequate global response would suggest, quite another.

Earlier this year, the UN called this the largest humanitarian crisis since the end of the second World War. As winter gave way to spring, the focus was on ensuring that a well-resourced, coordinated response would be in place by July, when the lean season peaks. Today, all the signs point to a persistent failure of the international community to act. At the beginning of this year, the UN made one of its biggest requests for funding, saying it needed $6.1 billion to deliver a humanitarian response to food crises in east Africa and also in Nigeria and Yemen. By last month, only $2.2 billion, or 36 per cent, had been pledged.

Meanwhile, conditions in the region have deterioriated in ways that were entirely foreseeable. Rains have failed for a third consecutive season, wilting crops and entrenching a long drought. Cereal prices are now at near-record levels in most markets in the region, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, while dry pastures and water shortages have also left thousands of animals dead or emaciated. That sharply curtails the production of milk, which is critical to the healthy development of children under five.

The result is that parts of South Sudan, which marked six years as an independent state this month to a background of continuing violence, are said to have fallen into famine. In Somalia alone, 1.4 million children face life-threatening severe malnutrition this year. Across the region, the drought is keeping children from school, destroying communities, fuelling conflicts and forcing huge numbers of people from their homes. The ensuing flow of people is putting pressure on countries such as Uganda and Tanzania, whose limited capacity to cope is under severe strain.

Nobody can claim we don’t have enough information at our disposal. Nor do we lack the wherewithal to reach those worst affected, assess their needs and deploy the necessary aid. Rather, the key to containing the crisis is a major infusion of money. In Ireland, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference is organising special collections at churches across the country to raise funds for those affected by the hunger crisis. President Michael D Higgins has appealed to Irish citizens and organisations to respond to that call with their traditional generosity. No doubt they will. And their gesture of human solidarity will serve as an indictment of the rich world’s disgraceful failure to do the same.

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