Africa's famine is becoming world's shame
The agony of millions of drought victims in the Horn of Africa keeps getting worse. The most severe drought in 50 or 60 years has made the region where Somalia adjoins Kenya and Ethiopia into a land of desperate refugees, mostly Somalis who have fled the drought and endless, destabilising conflict in their country.
Refugee camps in Kenya are overflowing. Kenya wants to send the 400,000 victims in its main camp complex at Dadaab - built for 90,000 - back across the border to Somalia. Meanwhile in refugee centres near Mogadishu, the latest disastrous indignity, ironically, is rain - cold, driving rain which is accelerating the looming menace of typhoid, cholera, measles and other diseases.
In all, the United Nations says, 11 million people need life-saving assistance because of the drought.
Unfortunately this kind of crisis brings out, in some people, a tendency to moralise: "What can you expect from a failed state?" we hear. "Aid won't help if they don't reform."
To which the best response is the most obvious one: millions of people are at death's door; this is no time for lectures and theories. "Grub first, then ethics," said the German playwright Berthold Brecht, and the line was never more appropriate. This is the time, in other words, for the world to open its granaries and bank accounts to keep those people alive, pull them back from misery and give them a hint of hope.
So far aid has been desultory and limited. Western governments have pledged some, and the UAE has committed food, water and shelter. But aid groups have been warning to little avail for months that this drought was creating grave problems. Perhaps those 11 million people would be faring better if they had been cursed by a sudden natural disaster, such as an earthquake or tsunami, rather than a slow-building crisis. When disaster strikes swiftly the world seems to takes notice. Slow-building devastation is erroneously viewed as less news worthy.
There is some truth in the sermonising about bad governance, and the presence of Al Qaeda-affiliate Al Shabaab has made some governments reluctant to lend a hand. And even now the US appears more interested in drone strikes than food drops.
But for today, simple human need, nakedly desperate, must be the first concern. The United Nations Children's Fund says two million children are now malnourished, to say nothing of adults. How can the rest of the world fail to respond?
Updated: July 17, 2011 04:00 AM