Saturday, 23 July 2011

‘Kicking the can down the road’

I bet you live in another planet if by now you haven’t encountered the spine chilling portraits of desperate children besieged by starvation and engulfed in squalor; portraits of desperate men and women consumed by pangs of hunger and devastated by the loss of their livelihoods in the horn of Africa, so unequivocally highlighted by international media in the past few days.

I dare say:
This is no news at all, save for the careless reporting by international media hell bent to portray the image of destitution when it comes to matters of the African continent. This is by no means meant to imply that things are rosy and all is well, because it’s definitely NOT. I insist it’s not news watching malnourished children clasping their hungry mothers, desperately suckling nothing. Its not news watching extensive landscapes littered with bones and decomposing tissues of what was once a people’s source of livelihood. Its not news watching the burial of scores of people driven to their deaths by hunger and hearing of children dying every six minutes in refugee camps in Kenya. IT IS INDEED NOT NEWS BECAUSE THIS ISN’T THE FIRST WE WITNESSING THIS, IT’S CERTAINLY NOT THE SECOND TIME, NOT THE TENTH TIME AND I BET IT WON’T BE THE LAST TIME.
But what troubles me most is not the careless coverage of the unfolding events in the horn of Africa, but the bee hive of humanitarian activity that has erupted there. Now NGOs, Aid agencies, and International Organizations have swung to action, running around like headless chicken acting as though the drought situation in the horn of Africa is some 7.6 magnitude earthquake that happened overnight and caught everyone flat footed. It is a shame how for decades people wait until human beings of equal right to life succumb to the most painful and horrifying experience - death out of starvation. How people wait until traumatizing images and stories of fellow humans condemned to death by starvation are aired on television to turn on the guilt and ask for charity. It’s a pity how the most basic of all human rights, as been reduced and subjected to charity and to the discretion of individuals, governments and international institutions alike who feel sufficiently philanthropic to give.

I am reading a New York Times article by Greg Jayne’s on November 5th 1980 and this is the headline – ‘Drought Famine and the Spectre of Disease Haunt Crisis Hit Horn of Africa’. What’s annoying though not shocking to me is the endless trail of such headlines in the history of the 20th century. These droughts and famines have been there, humanitarian aid perennially sought (and indeed availed though never adequate as well) yet there is little to show of progress in dealing with them more resolutely. Just a random Google search for – drought in the horn of Africa - reveals thousands of articles, news items, and commentaries of an endless plague that is seemingly not about to go away: It just shows how we have characteristically ‘kicked the can down the road’, wishing it would disappear only to catch up with it down this same road that is humanity!

1975 – Drought claims the lives of more than 40, 000 people and leaves over 800, 000 destitute in Somalia and Ethiopia alone
1980 – Over 2 million refugees affected by drought in horn of Africa
1983 - Ethiopian capital reports that current drought could be as bad as the one a decade ago which killed between 200000 - 300000 Ethiopians
1985 – Somalia’s interior minister Ahmed Suleiman Abdullah says 60% of Somalis about 4 million affected by a serious drought
1987/8 – Relief workers indicate that as many as 7 million face the prospects of famine that could rival the calamities of 1984/85
1991 – Sept 10th UN pleads for USD $400, million worth of aid to help over 22 million hit by drought and civil war in the horn of Africa
1996 - Worsening drought across Somalia forces over 800,000 nomads from the Sol and Sanaag regions to areas bordering Ethiopia. An estimated 500,000 heard of livestock dead
2000 - Jun 1st FAO launches an appeal for $32.6 million to bring urgently needed help to millions of farmers and their families in Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kenya, Somalia and Djibouti suffering from drought and starvation
2006 27th June – top United Nations relief official responsible for KenyaEthiopia, Eritrea, Somalia and Djibouti calls on authorities in the countries to do more to deal with future droughts. Despite recent rains in the region, millions still in need of international assistance – crisis not over
2008 - Jun 29th - Drought in the Horn of Africa is deepening after the failure of annual rains, and the UN estimates that more than 14.5 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance.

I dare say:
For as long as the bankruptcy of political commitment (national, regional and global) for early action, and for the pursuit of sustainable solutions persists, its just a matter of time and we’ll be buying newspapers and glued to our television sets grieving about the deaths of hunger stricken people and calling for more ‘swift action’. For as long as we allow governments to continue setting up myopic assistance operations (food for work programmes and social safety nets) instead of lasting food security mechanisms that divorce the horn of Africa from dependence on rain-fed agriculture and pastoralism reliant on natural precipitation, then sorry to say, but my brothers and sisters in Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia had better brace themselves for the glaring mean face of famine.  I honestly fail to understand and appreciate the relevance this organization known as the Intergovernmental Authority on Drought & Development (IGAD) when millions of people continue to suffer three decades after its formation. Without consistent and continued pressure on the governments in Eastern Africa to be more responsible and accountable to their people, they will continue to see the droughts as natural disasters that should be copped with. Am confident the situation would not be as dire as it looks currently if the Kenyan government for instance invested in a proper transport system connecting the rest of the country with the perennially marginalised north-eastern regions. It would be much easier for Somalis to import food, and even liquidate their animals with knowledge of eminent drought to avoid loss of livelihoods.

Frankly, famine is inevitable in the horn of Africa for as long as the international community continues to settle for the quick fix – supplying food and other forms of humanitarian aid and failing to increase development assistance for long term projects that address the underlying structural issues that make the drought situation in the horn of Africa more dire. It is clear as eloquently highlighted in the World Disasters Report 2009 that decades of large scale food aid has done very little to prevent the death and deterioration of livelihoods of people in the horn of Africa. What’s even more appalling is the knowledge that some donors turn down appeals for funding for preventive action yet they make pronounced media conferences yelling out their successes in mobilising and providing emergency response aid. In 2008 for example some donors ignored appeals by CARE to fund the protection of health and assets of vulnerable populations in the Horn of Africa amidst early warnings of eminent crop failure.  

Essentially, what humanitarian aid is succeeding to do is providing a scapegoat and easy lee way for the international community to continue absconding its duty to humanity and to rationalise the prevailing deficiency of appetite and political will to intervene in Somalia – to broker lasting peace and deal with the political mess and mayhem sustained by al shabab and the other warring factions. 

Indeed famine is inevitable in the horn of Africa for as long as international media fail to find time to follow up on donor commitments for sustainable development assistance, monitor progress and keep governments accountable for provision of public goods than excelling in the portrayal of Africa as a continent of pain, squalor suffering and desperation. How I wish they could focus more on highlighting African statesmen and women who have prospered in providing leadership to defeat hunger like Malawian President Mbingu Wa Mutharika and unambiguously underscore best practices – policies and strategies that are succeeding (amidst the odds) in guaranteeing food security and safeguarding the livelihoods of Africans.

It is indeed moral to feel obligated to contribute resources to support action to reduce human suffering: But I find it immoral as well to keep doing what is clearly an impediment to more serous, sustainable action to prevent more death and loss of livelihoods.

Kicking the can down the road certainly won’t sort out the famine problem. Ultimately, we will find the can down the road somewhere when it looses the momentum to continue rolling. Aid agencies will get fatigued, donations will get depleted, more disasters will occur elsewhere, and more 'news worthy events’ will certainly erupt (isn’t it disturbing how the Murdoch antics have overshadowed and deflected attention from this disaster?).

Well, 55 years ago when it was apparent to Egyptians that they definitely had no sustainable source of water, and they understood the implications of this on the survival of their nationhood – Abdul Nasser led the engineering of a sustainable solution to what was clearly a threat to his people. Though tough decisions had to be made (the nationalisation of the Suez Canal Company), wars fought, colossal amounts of resources expended and international relations severed, the Aswan High Dam was built. This guaranteed the future of Egypt, it guaranteed a sustainable source of fresh clean water and insured Egyptians against famine and starvation. Such is what I see as ‘resolute handling of the can’ and not a ‘shameless kick down the road’


  1. The whole thing is nauseating: human greed ovirriding the need to avert human suffering (ngo's: smdy's makng an xtra dollar he dznt deserve), govt's non commital to disaster preparedness (is there not a special ministry responsible 4 the north here at hme? N special progs?)....n ts time gvts n ngos also rolled out long lasting plans as u say: edu. on use of contraceptives n need 4fam planning needs to b started, infrustructure in the greater north considered etc. N the mudorch stuff as a distractor-only true (checked CNN mobile 4 the past 3 days)...DAYMN!

  2. A really thought-provoking and action-inspiring writeup. I wholly agree with you that the international media has been doing a terrible job in its reporting of issues concerning Africa. Unfortunately they are not concerned about African well-being - they are more concerned about the story that will sell. People are so eager today - even hungry to read bad news - what a shame.
    However, the point I want to make is that you cited Nasser of Egypt and the efforts being made in Malawi, these are efforts by leaders who have come to realize that we cannot continue to wait for others. The solution to this problem does not lie with any external bodies but with us Africans. We are the ones who can put an end to this scourge. We have to put pressure on our leaders to stop waiting to be helped. HELP IS NEVER GOING TO CONE FROM OUTSIDE AFRICA - THIS, HISTORY HAS TAUGHT US.
    It is time for all Africans, at home and abroad to begin to think of how the African plights can be handled by Africans in an African way

  3. A voice of reality amid all this facade of altruism, philanthropy and charity...history has shown that AID IS NOT AND WILL NEVER BE THE SOLUTION to the problem of regular famine, deaths and starvation in Africa or anywhere else. Its time the African govt's realize this and start embarking on some major transition on establishing sustainable solutions to the plight of its people. True concerns raised Okwaroh.

  4. @Okwaroh tragedy is the same crop of leaders who do literally nothing for five years in Kenya will get elected year in year out and thus we keep gravitating around the same things- drought, famine, wars, name it. We need leaders who think beyond elections, beyond filling their wallets and bank accounts like there's no tomorrow, we need accountable people who will act now for this generation and also for the future generations.