Africa's Famine: No Shortage of Blame

Africa Starves as War Approaches

The long wait for rain continues—and so does the suffering. Once, twice, in some cases three times, the people of Ethiopia’s highlands have planted their crops only to see them wither in one of the worst droughts in the country’s history. Up to 14 million people in Ethiopia will be dependent on food aid over the coming months. To the north and south, Eritrea, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, and Angola—through a combination of causes—also teeter on the brink of disaster. All told, some 38 million people across Africa are in need of urgent help to stay alive this year. To make matters worse, the level of need will most likely peak in March and April, just around the time the world’s attention and much of its humanitarian resources might be committed to coping with the human cost of a war in Iraq.

Last June, with the help of the relief agency Concern Worldwide, the Sunday Herald visited Malawi and highlighted the growing hunger there. On the surface, the explanations for this crisis seem labyrinthine: drought, conflict, ill-advised policies, AIDS, and land rights. But they mask a basic, underlying cause—poverty. The simple fact is that too many people in Africa subsist on the very brink of disaster. Even the slightest shock is enough to propel them downward into full-blown crisis.

And over recent months, not one but several shocks have been experienced across the continent. One consequence is that the global humanitarian community has been stretched almost to breaking point as it tries to cope with the sheer scale of this ongoing crisis. The problem is compounded by the rich world manipulating commodity prices and introducing policies that raise trade barriers against African goods.

In our readers’ generosity it’s clear that compassion is alive and well, but what has been equally heartening is the number of letters, e-mails, and telephone calls we received expressing shock, indignation, and a real commitment to keeping the crisis in Africa at the forefront of any global agenda.

The importance of this cannot be stressed enough, say aid workers, worried that Africa’s potential famine will drop off the radar completely as any war in Iraq begins. War, it seems, is infinitely more glamorous than famine.

That war—should it happen—will impact in several ways, all of them negative: It will divert already scarce financial resources away from Africa; it will divert public and media attention; and it will almost certainly obstruct deliveries of food aid to Africa, particularly Ethiopia and Eritrea. Says James Morris, head of the World Food Program, “We no longer have the luxury of making things better, the issue is whether we can prevent the situation from getting worse.”

His assessment is shared by Concern’s chief executive Tom Arnold, who confirmed that recent surveys have revealed “frightening” levels of malnutrition in Ethiopia and Eritrea. The Ethiopia survey—conducted in Kalu, in the north of the country—revealed a malnutrition rate of 16.6 percent. A rate of 15 percent is classed as “serious” or “critical.”

Concern’s response has made a tremendous difference. In the north of Ethiopia I witnessed nutritional screening of children under 5 years of age, food distributions to more than 400,000 people, and the provision of supplementary and therapeutic feeding to the most malnourished. Concern also continues with food-for-work programs in building roads for access to remote communities and terracing to help farming on the slopes of the mountains in both the lowlands and highlands. “On a recent visit to our programs in South Wollo, Ethiopia, it occurred to me the vital importance of road links; in some places it can literally be the difference between life and death,” said Concern’s David Gough.

During my last visit to the Ethiopian highlands, I watched as huge flesh-eating carrion crows circled the parched crop fields. “We call them the undertaker birds; they go wherever there is death,” a local farmer, Endris Abtu, said, his crop all gone. The birds are a common sight during times of famine.

“The undertaker birds must not have their day,” I wrote at the time. Concern, the Sunday Herald, and the Ethiopian people hope that with your support we can ensure they don’t.