Friday, July 15, 2011

Deadly Famines

There is Africa again in the news. Children are dying of malnutrition. There is widespread drought in the Horn of Africa. People who rely on their cattle to give them bare sustenance in a nomadic society are watching as their cattle die, and they are left with nothing to sustain them. They walk long distances for days without adequate nutrition, let alone potable water. Children's bellies are swelling with hunger and disease.

There are no edible crops in the field, everything has dried up. The cost of basic foodstuffs, grains and fundamental edibles have risen on the world market. Charities whose business it is to provide the indigent with assistance are finding it ever more difficult to do just that; the funding they have is not going as far as it used to. There is an epidemic of need and response is slow and inadequate.

The destitute, the ill and the starving implore us to help them. The United Nations World Food Bank has warned that ten million Africans are on the verge of starvation. Desperate refugees are arriving in camps set up to hold a fraction of the numbers that are showing up. Somalians are arriving in Kenya hoping for help, for food and water and medical attention, in desperate straits.

Funding from the international community is trickling in. And none of it has yet reached those who need it. World Vision has been trucking in water on a daily basis, but they are running out of supplies and cash. "There have been droughts before, but then people came to assist us, there was food available, even the animals were helped", commented an elder.

"Now there is nothing. We see vehicles from the government passing by some days, but they do not stop. The situation is worse than ever. Why have we been forgotten? I cannot tell." The refugees have been arriving for a month and they keep arriving, old people, mothers with infants, children in tow, hoping for relief from their deadly travail.

The Kenyan authorities view the arrival of thousands upon thousands of Somalians with fear and suspicion. It might be possible that among them are members of al-Shabab. Kenya's prime minister, Raila Odinga sees little option but to admit them: "Although we consider our own security, we cannot turn away refugees."

We in the West, the well-fed, the people who conventionally respond to such situations by sending charitable donations haven't been responding with the usual alacrity. Donor fatigue? We've become accustomed to reading about and hearing about all these dreadful stories of people in extremis? We've lost our faith in charitable NGOs' ability to use all the funding they receive to good use?

We salve our conscience by the ease with which the Internet allows us to electronically send our donations to Oxfam, Save The Children, Doctors Without Borders. What, after all, else can we possibly do? The world economy is still experiencing difficulties, a great number of people are unemployed; people have their own problems that must be solved.

Africa is a stain upon humanity. Its incessant tribal wars, its internecine battles, its heartless dictators, its constant appeals to the world community to send relief. Today Ethiopia and Somalia, tomorrow another part of Africa will be in a turmoil of disaster, pleading for help.

And we respond, because there is nothing less we can do.

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