Undoing the Famine Damage
"You can blame droughts on God, but famines are manmade. This shouldn't be happening."
So said humanitarian rock star Bono in a recent interview with CNN's Anderson Cooper on the current crisis in the Horn of Africa. More than 30,000 children under age 5 have died in the famine in the past four months, and another 12 million people are at risk of starvation. The number of dead was expected to increase significantly as this edition of Christianity Today went to press.
As Bono and other activists have pointed out, solutions are possible. "Since famine is manmade, it can be undone by human activity and human intervention," said former senator William Frist, who recently visited the area as part of a U.S. delegation. Scientists, politicians, and aid organizations knew up to 18 months ago that the drought—Africa's worst in 60 years—was coming, but lacked the resources and access to avert the famine that would almost certainly accompany it. Preemptive aid, including food, water, medical supplies, and agricultural assistance, prepared millions of Kenyans and Ethiopians to survive. But millions more in war-torn Somalia never received such help, and many are still unreachable due to fighting and factions, particularly where the Islamist militant group Al-Shabaab is active. As a result, hundreds of thousands have poured out of the country into refugee camps in neighboring Kenya and Ethiopia.
The U.S. federal government has sent more than $580 million, but with a debt crisis and a Congress looking to cut spending, it is calling on the private sector, particularly the faith-based community, to step up. (By comparison, the government sent about $1 billion to the Horn of Africa during a 2008 drought that was significantly less severe than this one. It sent $908 million in aid after the 2004 tsunami in East Asia, and $2.9 billion after the 2010 Haiti earthquake. The United Nations estimates that another $1.4 billion is needed for emergency care in Africa right now.)
Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Biden, recently visited refugee camps in Dadaab, Kenya, calling the famine "a moral crisis and humanitarian crisis of the first order." She met one Somali mother of two young children who "had to make the wrenching choice" to leave one child behind to die on the road when she could no longer carry both.
'We Can Do Something'
"The good news is we can do something," Biden said. "We saw firsthand the difference that aid is making."
Many faith-based NGOS are freely doing their work in Kenya and Ethiopia, but most of Somalia presents a security risk—especially in south-central regions where Al-Shabaab is most active. In a recent 58-page report, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the militant group "has violated international humanitarian law by prohibiting food aid to many areas under its control. It has banned about 20 humanitarian organizations, whom it accuses of pursuing religious or ideological motives." The UN World Food Programme also reported that food is often stolen, then sold at markets near the starving people it was intended for.
Christian aid organizations, which Al-Shabaab calls "infidels," are particularly at risk, according to HRW. Al-Shabaab spokesman Ali Mohamud Rage recently told Al Jazeera that it will continue to ban most foreign aid, and went so far as to deny any problem. Rage said there is merely a "shortage of rain" and that "the declaration of famine is political and is a lie with hidden agendas."
World Vision has teams in Kenya, Ethiopia, and regions of Somalia where it has "earned the trust of the communities" through years of working there, said Nathaniel Hurd, policy adviser for conflicts and disasters. "Because we're impartial and independent and make it clear that we're there to serve, we are often able to work in places where there is conflict."