President Michael D Higgins: We cannot let famine in the Horn of Africa slip from our agenda

Region has endured devastating hunger three times in 30 years. On the previous two occasions, the world said ‘never again’

Thirty years ago this year, I travelled to Kenya and Somalia with Sally O’Neill of Trócaire. We began in Mandera refugee camp and ended after eight days in Baidoa where 250 people a day were dying. We saw at first-hand the famine’s impact on a highly vulnerable population, dying from lack of food and water. That visit deeply moved me and left a lasting impression. As I left, President Mary Robinson was arriving and she gave an interview from Mandera that was as heartbreaking as it was enraged. She left immediately for the United Nations in New York to tell of what she saw.

The response of the international community to what she described was that “it must be never again”.

Almost 20 years later, in 2011, Robinson travelled again to the region with Irish development agencies to sound the alarm on another devastating hunger crisis unfolding in the region. At that stage, the UN were reporting that more than 13 million people across Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia were at risk due to one of the worst droughts to strike the region in 60 years.

As a result of a delayed global response, the 2011 famine claimed the lives of more than 260,000 people in Somalia, half of them children under five.

Once again the international community’s response was: “it must be never again”.

Now a decade later, in 2022, the region is facing yet another grave hunger crisis. It is one of catastrophic proportions — one person is likely to be dying of hunger every 48 seconds in drought-ravaged Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia in the Horn of Africa.

Extreme hunger

The number of people experiencing extreme hunger in these countries has more than doubled since last year — from more than 10 million to more than 23 million today, with nearly half a million people in parts of Somalia and Ethiopia facing famine-like conditions.

Children are affected and the UN has warned that in Somalia alone up to 350,000 children may die unless action is taken and taken now.

This is, what is unfolding as I write, already being called the greatest humanitarian crisis since the second World War.

The growing impact of climate change, compounded by conflict and the fallout from Covid-19, and an unparalleled period of drought, has devastated crops and destroyed livelihoods, forcing millions of people to leave their homes.

The numbers displaced globally have now surpassed the 100 million threshold for the first time since records began.

The war in Ukraine has also had an impact. Food and fuel prices have already increased and where understandably our attention has been deflected from other global crises to the site of the war, its consequences for the most threatened in Africa cannot afford to be ignored.

Countries in the global south that have contributed least to climate change are suffering the most. They are carrying immediate and terrible consequences, reflected in images we see coming from the Horn of Africa recently, images of malnourished children, dead animals strewn across burnt sands, families on the move and people yet again on the verge of famine.

We as a nation — and the global community — cannot avert our gaze. We have a moral and ethical responsibility as a country that has historically known terrible deprivation and hunger ourselves to reach out and support our brothers and sisters in need.

Hunger represents the grossest of human rights violations and one of the greatest ethical challenges facing the world today. We urgently need a renewed effort to help prevent the deaths of millions of poor and marginalised people.

As a matter of extreme urgency, the international community needs to make the funds required available to stave off a pending humanitarian disaster and to get immediate aid to people who are starving in Africa. The UN estimates that humanitarian funding of US$4.4 billion (€4.16 billion) is required to provide life-saving assistance and protection in the region. To date, the appeal is drastically underfunded.

The international community is challenged by this threatened famine and all famines to honour its obligations to climate change mitigation and adaptation, ensuring a robust regulatory framework to protect our fragile and threatened environment, and that respects the right of small landholders to remain on their land and retain access to water sources.

Irish contribution

Irish humanitarian organisations, missionaries and the Irish Government through Irish Aid have for many years been providing effective assistance to millions of people across the Horn of Africa region, and other parts of the world. The reputation of the Irish in the region is immense, based on our record of practical solidarity and not just words. That this support is maintained and increased is now more important than ever.

All of our current global crises are connected. That connection must be recognised. For example, the war in Ukraine has had a serious impact on food insecurity in the region, where wheat and wheat products account for one-third of the average national cereal consumption. Regionally, 84 per cent (92 per cent in the case of Somalia) of that demand is met by imports from Russia and Ukraine.

We cannot let famine in the Horn of Africa slip down and off the agenda of those who have most to give, such as the G7 participants. Smaller countries have been leading in response to the very poorly supported $4.4 billion needed now. For example, Ireland is the seventh-largest contributor to the UN Central Emergency Response Fund.

The G7 has announced an investment of $600 billion for developing countries. The sum needed immediately for famine relief in the Horn of Africa is tiny in comparison with what is being promised elsewhere.

A worldwide response is needed now to this global catastrophe if our words of before — “it must be never again” — are to carry the ring of authenticity. Each day of delay in action is costing lives.

Globally, we have the capacity to anticipate and prevent regional and global famines, giving meaning to the words “never again”. The transformation we need is possible and overdue.

This crisis requires an immediate response from all in the global community.

  • Michael D Higgins is President of Ireland