Robert Rotberg is the Fulbright Distinguished Professor of International Relations at the University of Sao Paulo, Brazil
At the very moment when acute hunger has made hardscrabble South Sudanese, Somalis and Yemenis the world's most vulnerable people – in their millions – so the rise of xenophobic populism in Europe and the United States has made the provision of meaningful assistance much less likely.
President Donald Trump's ham-fisted retreat from soft power and U.S. moral responsibility, coupled tightly with his proposed slashing of USAID and State Department funding, means that dramatically fewer global resources will be available to succour those who are truly needy. Europe is also focusing on its own problems rather than those of Africa. Canada could and should ride to the rescue.
The United Nations, having officially declared South Sudan in famine, must now seek funds from available donor countries, and for nearby Yemen, Somalia and Nigeria. The potential neglect of the United States, which helped give birth to South Sudan in 2011, could quickly lead to 100,000 or more civilian deaths and years of misery.
The UN's chief humanitarian co-ordinator declared last week that the world was "facing the largest humanitarian crisis since the creation" of that global body. "Without collective and co-ordinated global efforts, [as many as 20 million people in four countries] will simply starve to death." Will governments be deaf to such need?
As in Somalia, the Yemen, northern Nigeria and elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa and the Horn of Africa, hunger accompanies civil war and compounds the harmful outcomes of global warming and shifting rainfall patterns. (All life depends in these parched parts on periodic rain to refresh staple crops and forage for cattle, sheep and goats.)
When the rains fail, as they have in much of Africa this year and last, the livelihoods of agricultural peoples collapse. Nothing grows, animals (often the only capital rural peoples possess) waste away and there is no subsistence food on which to rely.With no cash, there's no ability to purchase what little food might be available in markets. Starving and merely malnourished families and children rely on food parcels from official and charitable relief agencies. But Mr. Trump and his team now want to stop much of this worthy assistance, together with the existence of officially funded para-governmental bodies such as the U.S. Institute of Peace, which helps to train peace builders, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which funds reports on global hunger.
Since all of the globe's contemporary famines are man-made as well as climatically induced, the immediate- and longer-term saving of lives depends on both relief for those who are risk of death and a strategy of ending warfare so that civilians can go back to tending their fields and herding their cattle, sheep and goats in relative peace.
As many as one million South Sudanese are short of food now and may shortly become even more imperilled. Hardly anyone in the country can escape the devastation and dislocation caused by the civil war that has raged since 2013. President Salva Kiir's government, controlled by his Dinka people and their Sudan Liberation Front Army and Movement, continue to battle Vice-President Riek Machar's Nuer legions and their allies. This fratricidal war for dominance has also embroiled other South Sudanese ethnic groups like the Azande and the Shilluk.
South Sudan's major source of revenue is oil, pumped largely from Unity State in the north. Mr. Kiir and Mr. Machar seek to annex as much of this potential wealth as possible, have effectively refused to share the spoils of foreign assistance from Europe and the United States, and loot whatever other cash has come to the government from remittances.
The South Sudanese have breached several hard-won, negotiated ceasefires and peace agreements since 2013, the most recent in 2016. A sizable UN force (including Chinese and Japanese contingents) has been unable to intervene decisively, or to curtail conflict. With a Trump administration seemingly determined to neglect Africa, only China and like-minded middle powers such as the Nordics and Canada can come to the rescue and become effective peacemakers in the Sudan and beyond.
That "beyond" includes Yemen, where sloppy Saudi Arabian operations have helped destroy cities, aqueducts and markets without doing much to restore the official government of President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi in its losing battle against Iranian-backed Houthi insurgents. Meanwhile, in central and eastern Yemen, U.S. drones target al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula while more and more Yemenis are unable to harvest or find food.
In Somalia drought and the depredations of al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Shabaab forces reduces the ability of both agricultural and nomadic populations to escape drought. The same is true in Borno State in northeastern Nigeria, the government seems unable to bring the Boko Haram insurgency to an end. War and drought again combine to make hunger palpable.
Millions of people – numbers that boggle comprehension – could die because wealthy governments with food-secure populations seem too ready to focus mostly on themselves and neglect the needs of the world's less privileged. Canada must try to lead the world's response. This is Prime Minister Trudeau's Pearsonian opportunity.