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A mother and child wait in the registration area of the Ifo refugee camp, which makes up part of the Kenya's giant Dadaab refugee settlement, on July 19, 2011. (Oli Scarff/Getty Images)
A mother and child wait in the registration area of the Ifo refugee camp, which makes up part of the Kenya's giant Dadaab refugee settlement, on July 19, 2011. (Oli Scarff/Getty Images)

Famine

Development minister seeks first-hand look at East Africa's 'slow-onset' calamity Add to ...

Canada's Minister of International Co-operation is headed to East Africa, where the worst drought in 60 years has left more than 10 million people facing critical food shortages.

Beverley Oda departs this week for a nine-day tour through a region that's been the scene of repeated humanitarian crises, both man-made and natural, as hundreds of children are arriving at refugee camps in malnourished and dehydrated states.

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"I think it's important to actually talk to those who are working on the ground to talk to the people who are handling such a great serious disaster," Ms. Oda said in a telephone interview on Tuesday, the day before the United Nations is expected to officially declare a famine in the area.

"This is something that's a slow-onset crisis," she said. "It's been building up for a couple of years with no rain. It started to be more serious last year. And now of course we have a critical situation."

Unlike the earthquake that hit Haiti a year-and-a-half ago or the tsunami that washed over Japan earlier this year, there has been no massive wave of news coverage given to the situation that has overtaken parts of Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia and Uganda.

Some areas of that region have experienced just 10 per cent of their normal rainfall over the past two years.

"I certainly understand why slow-onset disasters are slower to reach the public's attention. These build up over a period of time," Ms. Oda said. "If you contrast that with and earthquake that happens instantaneously, the results and the impact can be seen very visually."

But the impact of the drought has been devastating, she added. Her itinerary includes the Dadaab refugee camps in Kenya, which are receiving refugees from neighbouring Somalia, and she will hold talks with local government officials.

"They are seeing 1,000 to 1,500 people coming to the camp on a daily basis," Ms. Oda said. "There are 400,000 people within the camp now and the camp was originally built for 90,000 so I can't imagine the pressures now that are being put on the camp, not only in terms of shelter but in providing medical help, food and water."

Nicolas Moyer, the co-ordinator for the Humanitarian Coalition, said donations have picked up in the past week. The umbrella group - which is made up aid agencies Save the Children, CARE Canada, Oxfam Canada and Plan Canada - has raised about $450,000 since launching its appeal two weeks ago.

"But that is lower than we have raised for other appeals," Mr. Moyer said. "It really does relate to media coverage and making sure Canadians have a place to know where to donate."

He urged Canadians to visit the website Together.ca to find out how to help.

Financial contributions, Mr. Moyer said, will provide a full range of assistance. "Obviously in the short term, there is priorities on clean water, food and medical attention for children, particularly the malnourished."

So far this year, the Canadian government has contributed $22.35-million into the region, Ms. Oda said. Of that money, $11.5-million of that has gone to help the Somali refugee situation.

When the Conservative government first took office five years ago, Prime Minister Stephen Harper indicated his interest is redirecting Canada's development assistance programs from Africa, which had been a Liberal priority, to the American hemisphere.

But "we've never reduced our commitment to Africa. We've always maintained out commitment to Africa. We have consistently being contributing $2.1-billion into the African region," Ms. Oda said. "We are increasing our focus on the Americas but it doesn't mean you abandon one region in great need for another region."

 

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