The developing world - Millions still need help to survive

THOUGH we face huge issues as we try to sustain our banking sector and restore some semblance of trust in it; though Finance Minister Brian Lenihan’s budget in just two weeks is likely to be more severe than any in living memory, most of us are still better off than our parents were.

We are certainly better off than the vast majority of the world’s population.

We are most certainly better off than the populations of Ethiopia, the Sudan and many other parts of Africa or Asia where survival is the only challenge that matters. As we fret about market liquidity and property values, pension funds, loan-to-deposit ratios and job security, the reality is that we face nothing more than a challenge, no matter how profound, to our lifestyles.

This is small enough consolation to someone who has just lost their job and is at their wit’s end trying to make ends meet. Losing a job is a great blow but it is not a life-and-death issue in modern Ireland.

Because most of what happens in impoverished and drought ridden countries is a life-and-death issue those fighting famine, poverty and their causes have, as Caroline O’Doherty reports from Ethiopia today, a harder edge to their world view than we do.

“We expect the worst and plan for it,” says Dr Awole Mela, an agricultural economist and the educational charity Self Help’s boss in Africa — a perspective in stark contrast to our “we expect the best and borrow for it” attitude.

Next year will mark a quarter of a century since the disastrous famine of 1984 that sparked the Band Aid effort. Since then there have been half a dozen occasions when severe drought and/or famine caused an unknown number of deaths. Each event made hunger a daily reality for at least seven million people.

The Band Aid famine, if that description is not too unfortunate a juxtaposition of celebrity and catastrophe, seemed at the time a seminal moment. The images of starvation brought into our homes by the BBC, the distended stomachs, dehydrated children exhausted and limp because they had not eaten for weeks, helpless mothers crying as babies tried to suckle at their dry breasts, provoked outrage and, for once, a worldwide response. A generation had been pricked into action. Today’s development agencies are part of the legacy of that great act of conscience and their work is at least as important as ever.

One of those legacies, the agency Self Help Africa, began life as a small-scale response by a Carlow community to the needs of Ethiopian villages. The link was a local missionary priest.

In time that organisation became Self Help Development International. The objective is simple. Long-term development work using all-Ethiopian staff to help farming communities protect themselves against the affects of drought and threat of famine; the right to life made possible through the gift of independence.

Our current outrage with the banks and developers, regulators and compliant politicians who have caused such chaos in our economy should not be diminished because we are so much better off than those in the developing world. Rather it should be deepened because by their actions they have diminished our capacity to do what we must all do: work and give, give and work to try to improve the lives of the millions facing hunger, drought and the possibility of starvation in countries far less fortunate than this.

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