The last time the Horn of Africa was hit by a famine as severe as the current one, it was 1985 and I was just finishing two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in West Africa. My wife and I, moved by the horrific images coming out of Ethiopia, volunteered to work at a feeding camp with World Vision. But the U.S. relief organization was besieged with similar offers, and politely turned us down. Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones convinced a plethora of pop stars to record "We Are the World." That humanitarian disaster somehow became firmly entrenched in the hearts and minds of people around the world.
The current drought and famine is worse than the one in 1985 -- some say it is the worst in 60 years and affects more than 12 million people, most of them women and children -- but seems to be attracting a fraction of the world's attention, despite the proliferation of social media and social networks.
By some estimates, 300,000 children are suffering from severe acute malnutrition and are likely to die at a very high rate and very quickly, according to Executive Director Lisa Meadowcroft of AMREF USA, the U.S. affiliate of the African Medical and Relief Foundation (AMREF) based in Nairobi, who just came back from a trip to the Horn of Africa.
"In Kenya, I saw two very different areas -- Turkana, in northwest Kenya, very rural with almost no access to clean water and virtually no infrastructure, and Kibera, a hyper-urbanized slum area in the middle of Nairobi," she said. "But the effects of the drought were equally devastating to families. During the past six months, food prices have skyrocketed, by 24% alone in the month of July, and are beyond the means of most families to pay."
In Turkana, AMREF is responding by providing access to clean drinking water; promoting sanitation and hygiene in schools and households to prevent the outbreak of major diseases such as cholera; distributing food supplements to malnourished children, pregnant women and the elderly; and have created temporary community health centers and medical camps for those most in need.
In conjunction with the recent opening of the 66th session of the U.N. General Assembly, AMREF USA held a briefing on mitigating the effects of recurring droughts and famines. Several important points emerged:
• Drought is inevitable, but famine is not.
• Early warning systems put into place after the last famine predicted this one was coming well before it arrived. Despite that, the U.N. did not formally declare a disaster until July.
• Too often there's an absence of people affected by crises (particularly women) who are engaged in planning interventions.
• There needs to be real commitment to mainstreaming gender into all humanitarian and development programs.
• People need to be assisted where they live instead of forcing them to flee days or weeks of walking from their homes. Displacement makes people more vulnerable to violence, theft, disease and other harmful effects.
• Too often during a humanitarian crisis, donor countries "cherry-pick" interventions, rather than forging an integrated and balanced approach.
• Humanitarian responses, while absolutely necessary, do not substitute for long-term and sustainable solutions.
• Investing in adequate training, motivation and retention of health personnel now is essential.
Sadly, this disaster is not over. The rainy season is coming, warned Phillipe Lazzarini of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. That will bring deaths from communicable diseases like diarrhea and cholera, which will exacerbate an already tragic situation.
But two developments show how things could have been worse in the present, and how they could be better in the future.
First, because of PlumpyNut, a food product made from peanut butter, milk powder and micronutrients popularized by UNIFEF and others the last few years, the effects of this famine are much less severe than they would have been in 2005, according to Werner Schultink of UNICEF.
Second, PepsiCo announced a new initiative aiming to increase its supply of chickpeas and expanding production of the crop in Ethiopia. Of course, that announcement will make no difference to the people suffering now, but the company's partners, the World Food Program and the U.S. Agency for International Development, say the project has the potential to reduce famine in Africa over the long term.
It is encouraging to see the growing role of technological innovation and private sector investment in alleviating famine now and in the future. We need many more such long-term and sustainable solutions -- from the public and private sectors including non-governmental organizations, and from African and donor governments alike -- to erase such disasters permanently from the face of the earth.
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