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Priorities must change if we’re to end hunger

It’s not that there isn’t enough money to make sure that everyone on the planet has enough food in their stomachs – it’s that politicians choose to spend the money elsewhere, says ROGER McKENZIE

WE HAVE to move beyond the vicious cycle of famine, death, aid and exploitation in Africa.

It seems almost trite to say something like this when areas such as the Horn of Africa are experiencing their worst drought in four decades.

But it doesn’t make it less true that we have to find a way of breaking this seemingly never-ending situation even when there have been at least 448 deaths this year at malnutrition treatment centres in Somalia alone.

Authorities in Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya are now gripped by trying to put in place famine relief measures. 

The fact that drought seems to come and go in the Horn of Africa should remind us that there is something more systemic taking place and that those who can always find money for the latest military technology or adventure choose not to make sure that the poorest in the world have food in their bellies.

The money that could have gone towards humanitarian assistance has been sapped by global crises like the Covid-19 pandemic and now Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Prices for staples like wheat and cooking oil are rising quickly, in some places in the region by more than 100 per cent. And for the first time, a fifth straight rainy season might fail.

Famine even threatens Somalia’s capital as displacement camps on Mogadishu’s outskirts swell with exhausted new arrivals. 

At least 448 people died this year at out-patient and in-patient malnutrition treatment centres across Somalia through to April, according to data compiled by humanitarian groups and local authorities.

Aid workers warn the data is incomplete and the overall death toll from the drought is likely far higher.

Mortality surveys conducted in parts of Somalia in December and again in April and May by the UN’s food security and nutrition analysis unit showed a “severe and rapid deterioration within a very short time frame.”

Most alarming was the Bay region in the south, where adult mortality nearly tripled, child mortality more than doubled and the rate of the most severe malnutrition tripled.

Deaths and acute malnutrition have reached “atypically high levels“ in much of southern and central Somalia, and admissions of acutely malnourished children under five have risen by over 40 per cent compared to the same period last year, according to the Famine Early Warning Systems Network.

One notable complication when it comes to counting deaths is the extremist group al-Shabab, whose control over large parts of southern and central Somalia is a barrier to getting aid to where it’s needed.

Its harsh response to Somalia’s drought-driven famine from 2010-12 was a factor in more than a quarter of a million deaths, half of them children.

Another factor was the international community’s slow response. “A drama without witnesses,” the UN humanitarian co-ordinator for Somalia said at the time.

More than 200,000 people in Somalia face “catastrophic hunger and starvation, a drastic increase from the 81,000 forecast in April,” a joint statement by UN agencies said on Monday, noting that a humanitarian response plan for this year is just 18 per cent funded.

Somalia is not alone in the region. In Ethiopia’s drought-affected regions, the number of children treated for the most severe malnutrition — “a tip of the crisis” — jumped 27 per cent in the first quarter of this year compared to last year, according to Unicef.

The increase was 71 per cent in Kenya, where Doctors Without Borders reported at least 11 deaths in a single country’s malnutrition treatment programme earlier this year.

But it’s not just the Horn of Africa that faces food shortages and a lack of willingness to make funds available to address to the crisis. 

The United Nations’ World Food Programme has reported that it has suspended part of its food aid in South Sudan due to a funding shortage. This heightens the real risk of starvation for 1.7 million people.

The move to suspend aid will affect almost a third of the 6.2 million people in South Sudan the WFP had planned to assist this year. 

Climate change is also making the situation worse, with South Sudan facing severe flooding, localised drought as well as man-made conflict that has left more than 60 per cent of the population grappling with severe hunger.

“South Sudan is facing its hungriest year since independence,” the WFP’s acting country director in South Sudan, Adeyinka Badejo-Sanogo, told reporters in Geneva on Tuesday. 

“We are already in a crisis, but we are trying to avert the situation from becoming more explosive.”

The WFP said it had exhausted all options before suspending food assistance, including halving rations in 2021.

It said that following the food aid suspension, it is now hoping to reach 4.5 million South Sudanese in need, including 87,000 people already experiencing famine.

I am sure that before long we will start seeing the ritual pictures on our TV screens of starving Africans. People will, rightly, be moved to send their hard-earned cash to fund new relief efforts. 

People on the ground won’t care where the money comes from. They will be just glad to have food to eat.

People in Britain and elsewhere in the rich industrialised countries will be asked to do this at a time when they too are struggling with a soaring cost-of-living crisis.

Politicians will rise in their parliaments and praise the generosity of the people as they pump eye-watering amounts of cash into yet more military spending.

It’s not that there isn’t enough money to make sure that every man, woman and child on the planet has enough food in their stomachs and a roof over their heads — it’s that politicians choose to spend the money elsewhere in a way that makes their paymasters, such as the weapons manufacturers, richer.

We can’t continue to dance around the need for a fundamental and irreversible shift in society away from the desires of the super-rich and, instead, to prioritise the needs of the people. 

Roger Mckenzie is a journalist and general secretary of Liberation (liberationorg.co.uk).

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