The Silent Humanitarian Crisis in East Africa

The unfolding crisis in the Horn of Africa is yet another tragedy that reflects the dysfunction and injustice inherent in the structures of the world economy. Although the factors that are currently causing widespread hunger and deprivation across a large part of the region include the worst drought for 60 years, escalating food prices and continued regional conflict, the problem is largely man-made and entirely preventable if sufficient resources are redistributed to all people in need.

Around 10.7 million people already need urgent humanitarian assistance, while many thousands are fleeing a devastated Somalia each day to take refuge in makeshift camps across Ethiopia and Kenya. The United Nations has now officially declared two regions of southern Somalia to be in famine – a situation in which at least 20 percent of households face a complete lack of food and other basic necessities, and starvation, death and destitution are evident. As the Famine Early Warning Systems Network makes clear, the currently inadequate levels of humanitarian response are likely to see famine spread across all eight regions of southern Somalia within two months and could lead to “total livelihood/social collapse”.

With food insecurity in the East African region remaining an ongoing concern for decades, many humanitarian agencies have been trying to draw attention to a potential famine in these countries for some time. The UN made an appeal for $500m in 2010 to assist with food security, but managed to secure only half from donors. Consequently, hunger levels have rocketed over recent months, and in some areas the number of young children suffering malnutrition is now three times the normal emergency level. At least half a million children risk death if immediate help does not reach them, according to the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

The humanitarian coordinator for Somalia has also described the lack of resources as alarming, with insufficient donations of food, clean water, shelter and health services to save the lives of hundreds of thousands of Somalis in desperate need. The underlying problem is repeated by various aid organisations: that the international response is not commensurate with the urgent requirements of those affected by the humanitarian catastrophe, and there is a lack of international support to address the deep-seated causes of the crisis or to mitigate future crises.

Yet the extreme deprivation being widely reported across East African is just the tip of the iceberg. Needless impoverishment and death is an ongoing catastrophe that unfolds daily, largely without any attention from the world’s media or the public. At least 41,000 people in the developing world continue to die each day from easily preventable diseases that barely occur in high-income countries, such as diarrhoea, malaria or nutritional deficiencies. Despite the scale of these preventable deaths – amounting to 15 million lives lost each year, half of which affect young children before their fifth birthday – there is no official recognition that such extreme deprivation should also be considered a humanitarian catastrophe and treated accordingly.

These shameful mortality rates occur as a result of the ongoing silent disaster of world poverty, which receives a similarly inadequate international response to the periodic famines or food crises in countries like Somalia. For over a decade, international efforts to reduce poverty have centred around the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), a set of globally agreed targets that are set to expire in 2015. Although the MDGs have done much to focus attention on global poverty, they are widely considered an insufficient and superficial approach to economic development and saving lives.

A deadly lack of ambition

The politically sensitive principles of equity and distributive justice that featured in the original Millennium Declaration have gradually faded from the official development discourse, accompanied by a deadly lack of ambition. Even if the MDG goal on halving rates of poverty is met, a staggering 882 million people will still be living in absolute poverty in 2015. In effect, the MDG’s focus on merely reducing over time the number of people living below the threshold of human survival tacitly accepts the continuance of poverty-related deaths each day. Similarly, goals four and five commit to reduce maternal mortality by only three quarters by 2015, and under-five child mortality by two-thirds, which accepts not only a high number of preventable maternal and child deaths remaining at the end of the MDG period, but also many millions of such needless deaths in the interim.

In an interdependent and globalised world, there can be no meaningful process of development whilst so many people living in poverty die prematurely and unnecessarily. The impact on families, communities and economies are devastating, and preventing these deaths is an urgent moral necessity. Even in the crudest economic calculations, putting an end to avoidable deaths would amount to a significant investment in human capital, as healthy individuals whose basic needs are secured are far more likely to contribute to the growth of communities and nations. It is objectionable from any social, moral or economic viewpoint that sufficient resources are not immediately made available to address the crises of extreme deprivation, especially in its most acute manifestation well before the situation degenerates into a full-blown famine.

International efforts to address the life-threatening poverty of millions of people in the poorest countries must aim far higher and provide much more than the current insufficient, voluntary and often conditional donations of overseas aid and disaster assistance. A massively upscaled redistribution of resources from North to South is essential to avert humanitarian disasters and prevent extreme deprivation and poverty-related deaths. Given the scale of these related crises, an international program of emergency relief must become the highest priority of world governments, followed by assistance for developing countries to secure ongoing state-provided welfare and essential services for all their citizens. Efforts to improve the redistribution of wealth nationally through the development of local industries, better taxation and the provision of comprehensive social protection for all people should become the new focus of international development policy.

Central to this transformation of development is the principle of sharing, which embodies universally accepted ethical values that reflect our common humanity. Aligning the international policy discourse more closely to our shared moral obligations can help redeem decades of unjust economic and social policy, prevent future famines and help manifest an inclusive vision of progress and development. In the simplest economic terms, sharing points to the need for a redistribution of wealth from rich to poor, and a shift in power relations from financial and commercial interests to the world’s majority population. The East African crisis presents another opportunity for civil society to demand that wealth and resources are shared more equitably across the world, and that policy-makers prioritise the complete eradication of poverty above all other concerns.

Rajesh Makwana is the director at STWR and can be reached at rajesh(at)stwr.org.

Adam Parsons is STWR’s editor and can be contacted at adam(at)stwr.org.



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Rajesh Makwana is an activist and writer at www.sharing.org (STWR), a London-based civil society organisation campaigning for a fairer sharing of wealth, power and resources within and between nations. He can be contacted at rajesh@sharing.org

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