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In famine, ‘f’ is for failure

Guest content
27 April 2023

A person dies of hunger every 30 seconds in East Africa, where famine is looming for the third time in little more than a decade. It does not have to be this way, write Fati N’zi Hassane and Reena Ghelani.

This crisis – fuelled by climate change, conflict and economic shocks – has left almost 29 million people across Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia and South Sudan in urgent need of humanitarian assistance and protection. That number is the equivalent of the combined populations of Belgium and the Netherlands.

In Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia, five consecutive seasons of severe drought will likely continue while massive flooding across much of South Sudan deepens hunger that already affects half of that country’s people. In Somalia alone, according to the World Health Organization, up to 43,000 people died of hunger-related causes in 2022.

In these four countries, millions of families have left their homes in search of water, food and incomes. And every day, they face impossible choices: feed their children or buy them medicine, sell their last belongings to put food on the table.

Every day, millions of children across the region go to bed hungry and without hope. An entire generation will live with the long-term consequences of malnutrition, stunting, disease and closed schools. This crisis has been brewing for three years. It is a tragic déjà vu of the dreaded 2011 famine when more than 260,000 people died because the world’s response came too late.

The response to the current crisis has again been too little, too late. Action at speed and scale, some say, will only be undertaken after the attention that comes with an official declaration of that dreaded f-word: famine. But famine declarations are always too late. By then, too many lives and livelihoods have already been lost. If anything, they are declarations of failure. To stand idly by as hunger levels soar is immoral and unacceptable, especially because we know that if we act together, famine is preventable. We have done it before, we can do it again.

Lack of funding is not an excuse. Wealthy governments have long promised to do their part to support immediate life-saving action when climate disasters strike and to help affected communities recover and adapt to a changing world. National authorities have an obligation to invest in social protection, services and infrastructure and to support families and communities in the face of repeated climatic shocks.

We have the technology, knowledge and resources to predict and prevent extreme hunger and to halt the deadly slide into famine. Now we need political courage and commitment

To date, only 20 percent of the $8.7bn United Nations appeal for East Africa has been funded. The recent record $250m allocation from the Central Emergency Response Fund to help humanitarian groups stave off famine is very welcome, but it is yet another warning that adequate funding for response is not forthcoming. Without an urgent and major injection of money, emergency operations risk grinding to a halt, and more people will die. We now need political courage and commitment to make this happen.

It is said that famine is the most offensive f-word in the English language. Failure to address it is worse.

Fati N’zi Hassane is the Oxfam in Africa Director. Reena Ghelani is the United Nations Famine Prevention and Response Coordinator.

Original source: Al jazeera

Image credit: Some rights reserved by DFID - UK Department for International Develpment, flickr creative commons