Fate’s simple randomness, its hand in how lives unfold is a mystery, but one with life-defining consequences for those who draw the short straw.
The people of East Africa, especially those in South Sudan, Somalia, north-east Nigeria and in the adjacent Arabian peninsula country of Yemen, have drawn more than their share of short straws and, tragically, they have done so again.
Just five years after famine took the lives of an estimated threequarters of a million people in South Sudan the country faces the greatest food crisis of recent decades. About 7.5m people, almost two thirds of the population, desperately need help immediately. In some parts of that country, one caught in the grip of drought, violence and deepening anarchy, half the population is malnourished. An appeal by the UN for more money to try to turn the tide has run into the sand. Less than half of €1.5bn sought for aid projects has materialised.
Official figures show that last year Ireland’s humanitarian funding was just over €150m. More than €22m went to the Horn of Africa, to countries including South Sudan, Sudan, Somalia and Ethiopia. In particular, Ireland provided more than €11m to South Sudan. These figures represent about half of what is needed to reach the 0.7% of GDP target for overseas aid. Despite that aid, parts of South Sudan have reached a “level-four emergency phase” which means people will die from hunger in months, if aid, which can only come from the international community, does not reach them.
A relentless drought has played a significant part in driving this catastrophe but there is much more behind this complex situation. Violence between tribes, political alliances and government forces is the primary cause — this famine is manmade and is a direct consequence of dysfunctional, corrupt and racist authorities. In South Sudan, famine is concentrated where government forces and rebels have carried out ethnic killings. The country’s leaders have been accused of “deliberate starvation tactics”. Citizens face random atrocities, including the abduction of children, massacres and gang rapes. Aid workers have been targeted: Six were killed between Pibor and Juba last month.
In Yemen, where half a million children face starvation, conflict and a blockade operated by the Saudi-led coalition seem to make famine inevitable. In northern Nigeria, the military is regaining territory from Boko Haram and uncovering shocking levels of malnutrition.
It seems voyeuristic to rehearse this all-too-familiar horror story especially as there seems so little we can practically do in the short term to end the misery inflicted on these people by their compatriots. This is an age-old question but it is hard, and just too dispiriting, to suggest we can do nothing. It may seem an almost impossible challenge, it is, but the rich world must find a way to prevent this famine.