The Horn of Africa
The tragedy of the decade?
Oct 30th 2008 | NAIROBI
From The Economist print edition
Millions of people in dire need of help
ONE result of Ethiopia’s dreadful famine in 1984, when at least 1m people starved to death, was the invention of celebrity activism on behalf of the world’s most miserable. Band Aid, then Live Aid, then ever more sophisticated networking and the airing of films of starving children on television helped persuade rich countries’ governments to double aid to Africa as part of a wider set of promises to meet the UN’s eight Millennium Development Goals laid out in 2000, the first of which is to “eradicate extreme poverty and hunger” by 2015. Despite progress in setting up early-warning systems, better procurement methods and the rapid delivery of nutrition in the form of foil packets of plumpy nut, the Horn of Africa has remained a hunger zone.
The UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) says the present drought is the worst there since 1984. The International Committee of the Red Cross, which is usually slow to press the panic button, says it may be the tragedy of the decade. At least 17.5m people, the agencies reckon, may face starvation. The WFP is trying to feed 14m of them. High food prices, together with civil strife, the assassination of aid workers by jihadists, and piracy against food convoys sailing from Kenya to Somalia have combined with drought and desert to create a catastrophe. Some 12m of the hungry are in Ethiopia, 3m in Somalia, 2m in Kenya and Uganda, the rest in Eritrea and Djibouti.
Aid workers are getting better at stopping mass starvation. Fewer people will die than in 1984 or 1992, when Somalia was famine-stricken. But doctors at feeding clinics in affected areas say that children are already dying of illnesses linked to malnutrition, such as diarrhoea, heart failure, pneumonia and other infections. Survivors may be physically and mentally stunted, and ravaged by sores. Fighting in Ethiopia’s Ogaden region and across Somalia makes it more expensive to reach the hungry. The WFP says it needs an extra $572m to keep people alive until April. Falling oil prices may reduce transport costs, but not by much. A shortage in the region’s markets has forced the WFP to buy most of its food from distant South Africa.
An extra worry is that the world’s financial turmoil may reduce remittances from the Horn’s vast number of émigrés, putting more people at risk of starvation. The African Union, based in Addis Ababa, says a famine would wreck the region’s prospects and worsen general instability. Fighting between desperate pastoralist groups has already increased.