The worst preventable disaster of recent times
Oxfam America knew and warned of a famine before it happened in the Horn of Africa — what went wrong?
The Horn of Africa is experiencing one of the world’s worst famines in over 60 years. It is the first official famine of the 21st century. Tens of thousands of people have died so far. It is happening right now and is probably the most pressing humanitarian issue of the day.
Now that the human cost of the drought-induced famine is clear and the “shock factor” has been exhausted, Muriu says that journalists need to ask different kinds of questions: Could the famine have been prevented? And if so, what lessons can be learned for the future?
Lack of rain may be the immediate cause, but it is only part of the food crisis. Semhar Araia, who works in the Horn of Africa for Oxfam, explains that for an area so chronically plagued by an unpredictable climate “droughts are inevitable, but famine is preventable.” Other charitable aid organisations such as the Canadian Hunger Foundation agree.
Oxfam began to worry about an impending disaster as far back as November 2010, when their early warning systems for rainwater, crop harvests, and cattle health showed a declining situation.
By December, Muriu says, “we knew things were worsening at a disturbing rate.” By the following May, adults in the region were down to one meal a day.
Despite all the signs of a looming crisis, there was no response. Media attention was minimal and the international community remained silent, according to Muriu.
What went so wrong? A large part of the problem is the political atmosphere of the region. Western countries are not able give aid until a state of emergency is declared. African governments are keen to avoid such a declaration for fear of harming international trade.
Muriu adds, “the media is not interested in the absence of a declaration” of a state of emergency.
Lack of media attention to the early stages of a food crisis means that the “international community’s response comes too late,” she says. And yet these precursor stages are important enough to compound the issue of a drought into a crisis of epic proportions.
According to the United Nations, since early September of 2011, another three million people have been pushed to the brink of starvation by unstable governments and rising food costs in Ethiopia, Somalia and other neighboring states.
To overcome the most damaging obstacle of reluctant African governments, Oxfam America hopes to convince them that it is a more economically sound policy to accept and correct the problem rather than sweep it under the rug.