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NGOs warning: ‘Too late’ to avert African famine

24 June 2022


People gather outside their makeshift shelters at the Kaxareey camp in the Gedo region of Somalia last month

People gather outside their makeshift shelters at the Kaxareey camp in the Gedo region of Somalia last month

IT IS now likely to be too late to avert another widespread famine in East Africa, aid agencies say. They accuse the international community of failing to live up to promises that it made after devastating hunger killed hundreds of thousands of people a decade ago.

The UK, in particular, was accused of a “compassion failure” after slashing its aid to the region by almost a half over the past year, even though agencies warned of the need to act early to prevent a crisis.

Children are already dying in front of the eyes of humanitarian workers across Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia, and South Sudan.

The region is in crisis because of a confluence of severe drought, ongoing conflicts, rising food prices owing to the Ukraine war, and the economic impact of the pandemic.

The World Food Programme’s regional director for East Africa, Michael Dunford, said that the world was beginning to wake up to the crisis, but it had been too slow, with attention and funding from Western governments directed towards Ukraine, and increasing national defence spending.

Billions of dollars are needed, the agencies say, but appeals are falling short of their targets. The UN appeal for Somalia is just 28 per cent funded, while the appeal for Kenya is only 16 per cent funded.

Speaking at an inter-agency briefing on the crisis, before next week’s G7 meeting, Mr Dunford said that he feared that it was no longer possible to avert a “catastrophe” in the region.

“We need money, and we need it now. Will we able to avert [a famine in Somalia]? Unless there is . . . a massive scaling-up from right now, it won’t be possible, quite frankly. The only way, at this point, is if there is a massive investment in humanitarian relief, and all the stakeholders, all the partners, come together to try to avert this.”

Humanitarian agencies are calling for $1.4-billion funding from the international community to address the immediate humanitarian need across the region.

Annette Msabeni, of the Kenyan Red Cross, said that crises should not be an “either/or”: “No one person affected is more important than another; we need to put in support for all these different crises.” Emergency centres are already having to reduce the size of emergency rations given to people, because of lack of funding.

“We can no longer avert the crisis, but we can save many, more lives,” the deputy humanitarian director for Save the Children, Claire Sanford, said.

“I can honestly say in my 23 years of responding to humanitarian crises, this is by far the worst I’ve seen, particularly in terms of the level of impact on children,” she said. “The starvation that my colleagues and I witnessed in Somalia has escalated even faster than we feared.”

Aid centres are being overwhelmed with need: boardrooms have been turned into wards, and extra mattresses laid out under trees for patients. The UN has warned that an “explosion” of child deaths is imminent.

In 2011, famine claimed the lives of about a quarter of a million people, mainly children, in Somalia, but the the current crisis is even worse. Somalia is experiencing its fifth poor harvest, and the next rainy season this autumn expected to be poor again. One third of all livestock in Somalia have died.

“We have genuinely failed as an international community, in that we allowed the situation to get to the extent it is at the moment. In 2011, we vowed we would never let that happen again, and yet we have failed in that promise, “ Ms Sanford said.

The UK is now the lowest contributor of aid funding in the G7, after it slashed its aid budget in the region by 50 per cent — £4.6 billion — last year.

The chief executive of Oxfam, Danny Sriskandarajah, described the UK aid cuts as “distressing and depressing”.

“We are the only G7 country cutting our aid during the height of a global pandemic, and with more people in need of humanitarian assistance than at any time since the Second World War.

“This is a compassion failure by the UK government just at a time of rising need.”

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