The Horn of Africa is once again facing a devastating drought – the worst in 60 years. More than 10 million people are in urgent need of food, water and emergency health care. Today the United Nations is expected to declare a famine in parts of southern Somalia, where 3,500 refugees flee a day.
During the 1984-1985 famine in Ethiopia and Eritrea, the West blamed the lack of an early warning system for the failure to prevent a tragedy that left one million dead.
Today, no such excuse exists. The international community has the benefit of a sophisticated early warning system. The United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs has been sending out famine alerts for the region since last year, warning of the deteriorating situation, caused by drought, rising food prices and conflict. In March, the alerts grew more urgent: “Contingency planning should begin immediately.”
Yet these warnings went unheeded. Last year's UN appeals for $500-million for food security in East Africa fell well short. Only one-fifth of the $22-billion pledged in 2009 by the G-8 countries for agricultural aid has been disbursed – though Canada has given more than two-thirds of its pledges. What is the point of an early warning system if nobody is listening? Does the world really need to see images of children with swollen bellies in refugee camps, in order to keep past promises for food aid?
“We have seen derisory offers from rich European countries so far. It now requires the whole of the international community to do all it can to stop what is already a terrible situation escalating further,” said Andrew Mitchell, Britain's Secretary for International Development. While the U.K. just announced a new package of $84-million to support drought victims, Italy, a former colonial power in Somalia, has granted $422,100.
Aid agencies use the word “famine” with extreme caution, relying on a UN definition based on acute malnutrition among children under five reaching more than 30 per cent, and deaths from hunger reaching two people per 10,000. Unfortunately, that moment has now arrived for Somalia, and may soon reach parts of Kenya, Ethiopia and Djibouti.
When an alarm of impending famine is sounded, the whole world should be galvanized into action. Why did this fail to happen? Surely the international community can do better than this.