Two decades after Bob Geldof’s first fundraising efforts highlighted starvation in the Dark Continent, a vast hunger belt still affects an area from central Africa through to the Indian Ocean seaboard. The Famine Early Warning Systems Network, an organisation comprising various international aid agencies, currently estimates that 20 million Africans are seriously malnourished and that seven African states face food emergencies. In fact, it is estimated that 35 per cent of the population is affected by hunger and malnutrition, a figure unchanged since the mid 1970s.
The greatest risk lies in Ethiopia, where 10 million people are said to be facing food shortages. In Sudan, too, refugees returning home from the recent civil war have placed excessive burdens on the already hard-pressed land. Further south, Zimbabwe also faces a food crisis, but there the nightmare is self-induced thanks to the ruinous policies of the Mugabe government.
Drought and dictatorships
Some African countries’ problems stem from neglect and under investment. The International Food Policy Research Institute believes that African governments could do more to prevent hunger and malnutrition. But the reasons for persistent malnourishment elsewhere are complex.
Recurring drought is widespread in Africa, exacerbated by population explosions that suck up water, pasture and livestock. Some food crises also stem from bad government and civil wars. Such was the situation in Niger where for 30 years after winning independence from France, coup and military dictatorship ruled the country. Niger is now a peaceful multiparty democracy, but its desert is expanding and drought is unrelenting. Sadly, Niger was the world’s second poorest country even before poor rains and locust swarms devastated last year’s crops. The locusts, the worst in 15 years, ravaged 7,000 square miles of farmland and tipped the country over the precipice.
The United Nations maintains that the combined drought-locust onslaught cut cereal production by 15 per cent last year. Cathy Skoula, executive director of US based Action Against Hunger, says that the international community had ignored the problems of countries like Niger for far too long. “They’re not considered important, geopolitically or resource wise. It comes down to a question of priorities. But any human life is important,” she says.
Tsunami diverted attention
Aid groups say catastrophe could have been averted in Niger if the international community had responded faster. Early warning systems were in place, and the United Nations and other humanitarian agencies had repeatedly warned of imminent food shortages. Last November, Niger’s government issued an emergency appeal for 78,000 tons of food. Donors, busy with higher-profile crises, barely responded. The following month, the Indian Ocean tsunami obliterated all other news. The UN’s “flash appeal” in May raised just 12 per cent of what was needed, both in Niger and in neighbouring Mali, which is also in the grip of food shortages.
In spite of the situation, Niger’s ruler, President Mamadou Tanja, has rejected claims that his country is in crisis. He accepts that there are food shortages but rejects the famine label. “There is no famine in Niger. The people who are saying there is a famine either have a political interest or an economic interest in saying so,” he maintains.
Famine usually defines a situation in which a high proportion of the general population is vulnerable to death by hunger related disease. Sadly, starvation is by no means exceptional in Niger, where one in four children do not live to see their fifth birthday and where a quarter of the country’s 12 million people are suffering food shortages. But for the starving population, the semantics of the debate – famine or food shortage, disaster or crisis – are immaterial. Hunger is hunger irrespective of the subtleties of language.
How you can help
There are several ways you can contribute to famine relief. You can make donations at the following websites:
– The United Nations World Food Programme, which is seeking to raise 16 million dollars towards providing food aid in Niger – www.wfp.org
– The United Nations Children’s Fund, Unicef is seeking to help the 200,000 children it has identified as suffering from under-nutrition – www.unicef.org
– World Vision, emergency food aid for Niger – www.worldvision.org
– Africare-Niger Emergency Food Relief – www.africare.org
By Gabriel Hershman