South Sudan famine results from failure of political will

Ireland’s tragic experience gives us a voice and the responsibility that goes with it

On February 29th we woke to a headline that should have never come about: famine was declared in parts of South Sudan, the first to be announced anywhere in the world in six years. This is on top of "imminent famine" warnings in northeast Nigeria, Somalia and Yemen, putting a total of 20 million people at risk of starvation.The world is now facing the largest humanitarian crisis since 1945. The possibility of four famine declarations in one year would present an unprecedented situation in modern times.

The formal declaration of famine in parts of South Sudan means that certain measures of mortality, malnutrition and hunger have already been met. Famine conditions are likely to have existed for up to two years but inadequate access to data has prevented a formal declaration. That had to wait for the rapid further worsening of food security that developed in recent months.

The main cause of the famine is conflict, which has left 40 per cent of South Sudan’s population in need of urgent assistance and forced more than three million people to flee their homes. Families have lost everything – land, livestock and many of their children – and are now reduced to surviving on whatever vegetation they can find.

People in Somalia, Yemen and northern Nigeria are facing similarly desperate circumstances, and the common theme binding all four crises is conflict, which has compounded pre-existing problems of deeply ingrained poverty throughout the regions.

Though the timing of desperate food crises arising simultaneously across numerous regions is devastating, all were predictable. Unlike a hurricane or an earthquake, famines do not appear suddenly. It takes years of growing crisis to reach this point of catastrophic food insecurity.

Early warning

We have the contextual knowledge, the technology and the early warning systems to predict where and when famines will occur, and we always have the time to prevent them. There were warnings throughout 2016 that food security across each of these regions was deteriorating dramatically.

But the ample warnings failed to move us. The world seems to be waiting for more horrific images of starving children across its television screens and, by then, it is too late for too many.

If we are unconvinced of the need to respond rapidly we should remember what famine does. It kills people. The weakest, the young and the old die first. It also has long term effects on those who survive. Children subjected to acute malnutrition are often permanently affected, both physically and mentally, even after adequate nutrition is restored.

This is especially tragic because it is avoidable. Famine itself is a declaration of failure, a failure to prevent. Famines occur when conflict is allowed to fester and societies and economies are progressively torn apart.

It is still possible to avert the worst of these crises. It is not inevitable that these people will starve. Right now averting famine will require two things: a rapid injection of funding to enable the delivery of more humanitarian assistance, and full and unimpeded access for humanitarian agencies to all affected populations. That includes an immediate end to blocking food aid to certain areas, and ensuring safe passage for humanitarian convoys. None of this is impossible. What is required is leadership.

Humanitarian responsibility

Ireland with its own tragic experience of both conflict and hunger knows the difficulty of being at the mercy of the elements for survival, but also of being the victim of the politics and conflicts of the time. And we know how these can damn innocent people to starvation and death. That experience has afforded us an authoritative humanitarian voice, but also a responsibility.

Generations are defined by the responses to the greatest challenges of their time, and we cannot allow ourselves to become immune to the unprecedented levels of displacement, starvation and overall suffering that exist in the world today.

It is imperative that Ireland continues to raise a loud and insistent voice with the greatest powers in the world by urging the immediate release of the $4 billion needed now to enable life-saving relief efforts to scale up.

To declare a famine is to declare a failure of the political will to prevent it from occurring. To have four countries facing famine at one time is unprecedented and the continued failure of the international community to prevent or adequately respond to them is unacceptable. Former US president George W Bush recognised this and challenged his officials to ensure that famine never happened while he was in the White House, a policy known as "No famine on my watch". His intention may have been as political as it was altruistic, but it put political pressure on his administration to respond earlier and faster to looming food crises. The question is, who is watching now?

Dominic MacSorley is chief executive of Concern Worldwide