08/11/2011 11:19 am ET Updated Oct 11, 2011

African Famine, Wall Street and All of Us

As a relief worker, it's more than a bit disconcerting to look at the low level of the African famine relief response -- especially when you've been around long enough to remember the 1984 Ethiopian famine and its massive tug on the hearts of the world. NGOs and United Nations agencies were in their heyday 27 years ago, raising an amount equal to what was committed by the US government itself for that relief effort: $450 million for Ethiopia and 6 neighboring countries which were also affected by drought and dislocation.

There's never a magic formula to turn on the world's compassion. In 1984, Mohammed Amin, a Kenya-based freelance video journalist, sold some footage to NBC, which ran his haunting images of Ethiopian children evidently dying of hunger... on a Sunday NBC News broadcast. British TV picked it up and Bob Geldof, an Irish rock star (Boomtown Rats), then penned "Do They Know It's Christmas," which became the anthem of that disaster.

"Christmas" begat an American music community response in Michael Jackson/Quincy Jones/Lionel Richie's "We Are The World"; and a tsunami of money and supplies found its way to dozens of relief operations. Even our boutique relief group, then known as Operation California (now Operation USA), managed to deliver a fully-laden (with 120 tons of relief) Boeing 747 cargo jet to Addis Ababa in what was the very first landing of a jet that size in Ethiopia.

What was not happening in those exciting and meaningful days was an imploding economy destroying massive amounts of people's assets, 2 wars sapping over $1 trillion of our treasure, costly insurgencies (e.g., Libya), wholesale disequilibrium in the Middle East (yes, in Israel, too), fires in London, tornadoes in vast parts of the USA and 12% unemployment in California -- the engine of America's self-image and provider of so much of the world's popular culture through film and the Internet. That "white noise" would kill most fundraising efforts -- and may result in millions of deaths in East Africa and elsewhere as we fold into ourselves and ponder our own future.

I hope we're wiser than that.