Conflict is now the main cause of famine

Donor fatigue is the biggest obstacle to assembling an adequate response

We have heard the warnings before, but the threats posed by the current famine emergency gripping vast areas of East Africa remain as stark and as merciless as they have always been: starvation, disease and death.

I saw the effects of drought first-hand on a recent visit to Ethiopia, where nearly eight million people were in receipt of humanitarian assistance in the first quarter of this year. With the continued failure of rains, that need will only increase as lack of food and water bring disease to the fore.

Ethiopia is not alone, however. Along with 16 million people currently facing starvation across the Horn of Africa, famine has already been declared in South Sudan, and it continues to stalk the people of Somalia, Nigeria and Yemen.

Yet, we would be mistaken if we thought that nothing had changed because we have seen hunger on a mass scale before. The reasons for this current global crisis are complex.

The four countries that presently face the most severe humanitarian problems are beset by one major common factor. Conflict.

In South Sudan, the people have endured a prolonged and intractable political struggle since independence was declared in 2011. Today a million face food insecurity, two million have been displaced by the ensuing violence, and the same number have been forced to find refuge in neighbouring countries.

The people of Somalia have long been affected by militant aggression, although there are signs recently that the government is starting to restore some semblance of order for the first time in 30 years. Despite this, almost seven million people are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance.

In Nigeria, the food crisis in the north-east has its roots in violence. The UN estimates that over five million are in need of assistance, again a number likely to increase in the months ahead as harvests look set to fail due to drought.

Lastly, in Yemen, where the people are caught in a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, seven million badly require emergency food assistance. More than a million children are now at risk of cholera in a crisis that aid agencies have been sounding alarm bells about for two years.

But it is not just conflict that has caused these manageable crises to spiral out of control.

Climate change has increased the frequency and scale of droughts. Lake Chad, the major water source for 70 million people in West Africa, has shrunk by 98 per cent since 1960. The mean temperature in Ethiopia has risen by 1.3°C between 1960 and 2006.

Yet, despite all these challenges - and the extreme perils that have been brought to the feet of millions of people - many of those who have been giving to countries tormented by hunger and starvation for 30, 40, or even 50 years, have become tired of the constant appeals, the constant need. These are not uncaring or unthinking people; they are just inured to something that simply doesn’t ever seem to go away.

They are the exceptions of course, in that they, at least, know that a crisis exists. Many don’t. Our colleagues in IRC recently discovered that only 15 per cent of Americans had heard of the current global hunger crisis.

But in an ever more complex and fast-paced media environment, there is widespread recognition in the NGO community, amongst media actors and in government circles, that people have seen this before and that this fatigue is impacting very negatively on our capacity to address what is being referred to now as the largest humanitarian crisis since 1945.

In Ethiopia, I heard deep frustration amongst representatives of institutional donors at the paucity of the world’s response. Competition for resources is intense, with multiple crises across the world seeking increased support from a static funding pool. Indeed there are political forces in various countries that wish to reduce the humanitarian pool, in some cases dramatically. The unmet funding requirement for Ethiopia alone is $680 million.

This is why - apart from acknowledging and understanding the driving factors of conflict and climate change - it is critical that the public realise that their support has contributed to significant progress in some regions, despite what it might seem like on the surface.

Take Ethiopia itself, for example. Last year, a major drought caused by the El Niño weather system did not lead to mass famine as a similar, if less severe, drought did in the 1980s. Government systems there today are far stronger and humanitarian support, by GOAL and others, was introduced rapidly, and in sufficient quantities, to ameliorate the worst consequences of the drought.

Ethiopia has even developed enough that, despite its own problems, it is in a position to host almost one million refugees in a policy of openness that would put many Western nations to shame. These people include more than 360,000 people from South Sudan, the vast majority of whom are located in Gambella, where GOAL supports more than 120,000 mainly women and children across two camps; 250,000 Somalis and 160,000 people from Eritrea, despite the latter country still considered a bitter enemy of Ethiopia.

And let’s not forget that the people of these parts of the world - even excluding those who currently live amidst the chaos of war - are far less resilient in the face of shifting weather patterns than we are. The options they have, and the resources they can bring to bear, are feeble in comparison to what is available to most Western nations. Water, always a precious and scarce resource, is becoming more so in countries that contribute relatively little to climate change themselves.

Therefore, our fatigue, however understandable, needs to be shaken off. We have a responsibility here. A responsibility to people who are the victims of wars they did not start, and droughts they did not cause.

And, when you really think about it, fatigue is a relative thing.

Novelist Nadifa Mohamed, writing in The New York Times recently, told the story of her grandmother carrying her infant son dozens of miles to an aid centre during a brutal famine in Somalia in 1928. An epidemic had overtaken the camp by the time they arrived so she was turned away and forced to walk back home with the child on her back. They survived, despite the obvious fatigue. As Mohamed makes clear, these people are not passive victims waiting for charities to save them. They never were. They have, and continue to, make super human efforts to survive.

The effort required of us now is not super human - it is just simply human.

Celine Fitzgerald is General Manager of GOAL