x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

African famine requires region to target efforts

The images of acute suffering should command our action: emaciated children begging for help; mothers, desperate themselves, too weak to cry. So why has the world been so slow to act in Somalia?

The images of acute suffering should command our action: emaciated children begging for help; mothers, desperate themselves, too weak to cry.

The world cannot seem to turn away from these images. Sadly, it has not been able to extend a hand either.

Tens of thousands of East Africans, mostly Somalis, have starved to death in recent months, and the UN warns that as many as 500,000 children could suffer a similar fate unless aid arrives swiftly. Bakool and Lower Shabelle in southern Somalia have already been declared famine zones; the UN warns that as many as 10 million are at risk of starvation across the region.

The Islamist militia Al Shabaab has slowed aid efforts, but overshadowing these security challenges has been a reluctance among western nations to give aid that might end up in the hands of Al Qaeda's allies.

This African famine, like others, has elicited more sympathy than action. Courageous aid agencies are doing what they can, but they are also battling disaster fatigue and sticky purse strings in the West - where fiscal problems are a distraction to say the least.

New solutions are needed and now. The UAE has proposed one. As The National reported yesterday, a UAE team is visiting Mogadishu to assess immediate needs and options to source and purchase food locally. Without question there is a need for immediate food drops, but solutions will only be lasting if Africa's farmers are not undercut by an influx of cheap foreign foodstuffs.

At a pledge conference in Nairobi starting today, nations will be asked to contribute to a relief fund. The UN Food and Agriculture Agency reports $1.6 billion is needed in emergency relief; donors should come to Kenya with cheques in hand. And Arab countries should lead the way, among other countries in the region, not least because instability in East Africa affects its neighbours, as we have seen in the Somali piracy threat.

Any level of help will certainly be welcomed by the hungry and starving. But it's hard not to be discouraged by the pace. What took so long? And consider the glacial pace of African aid. Where has the African Union been as Somalia suffered? Kenya, also hit by drought, is still turning away refugees.

The Horn of Africa's famine is not only the result of human failing; a two-year drought will always cause suffering. But excuses will not feed the hungry. Only swift and immediate action will.