East Africa: Behind the famine

By Pascale Palmer
July 8, 2011

Millions of people across East Africa are looking down the barrel of the worst famine for 60 years. Thousands of families have picked up their possessions to walk towards what they hope is better pasture land, towards countries that might hold the promise of food.

But what they didn’t and don’t know is that what lies ahead of them is as scorched and barren as their homelands. CAFOD partners have been tracing the movement of communities coming out of Ethiopia, many of them driving their cattle towards Kenya.

At the start of the exodus, one of our partners’ priorities was to try to keep people’s animals alive in the hope that they would have the chance to flourish elsewhere. Now they are having to prioritise clearing away the carcasses of those same cattle to help prevent the spread of disease. How rapidly life turns to death.

Only three years ago this same African region was at risk of famine when 20 million people suffered the impacts of a series of failed rains. This time it will be worse.

And yet, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation the world is producing enough food to give every human being more than 2,500 kcal per day. So why are so many millions hungry, with East Africa being pushed yet again to the cliff edge?

It’s a no-brainer to say that the main cause of hunger is poverty. Being poor means trying to live on unimaginably small daily amounts of money – if you’ve got little more than one dollar for a day’s needs, you just aren’t going to be able to feed yourself and your children.

But then you have to ask yourself why are there so many poor people? For the answer to that we have to look at the economic systems and structures that have been perpetuated and developed to shore up the interests of a few while those at the bottom of the system barely survive. And when those structures implode, the ripples of the economic crises hit the poorest worst, taking away what little they had in the boom times.

Then there is conflict. Of the 26 million people worldwide who have been displaced by conflict or violence, nearly 12 million live in Africa – that’s more than 40 per cent of the world’s IDPs or internally displaced people. Wars and violence disrupt communities, leave families parentless, make it impossible to safely till fields and grow crops, drain young men from the community to swell military and rebel ranks, force communities to uproot their lives and livelihoods to walk to safer regions or countries. In all of this, as those people walk the miles to safety, how will they keep the food coming in? When they arrive, en masse in a new area, how will they find the work to earn the money to feed themselves and their families? These people are poor to begin with – that’s why their only option is walking away from what they know towards something they pray will be better.

Suffering from hunger begets hunger. What I mean by this is that malnutrition leads to poor health, low energy and can hamper full brain development. All of these reduce a person’s ability to work and learn – both of which are lifelines to filling your and your families’ stomachs.

And last but in no way least, there is climate change – that seeping, swirling, insidious Behemoth that so few rich nations are brave enough to stand up to. Its impacts on already weather-vulnerable regions, increasing the frequency and severity of droughts, floods and storms are becoming palpably evident. And our own partners in northern Kenya have been telling us for years that the seasons are changing, making it difficult for traditional pastoralists to know when to sow crops, even when there is enough rain for growth.

Extremes of weather kill crops and cattle – either suddenly during cyclones or floods, or with cruel stealth as seeds fail to germinate and fragile plants wither in the drought, and no pasture land can be found for animals to graze. Without a good harvest and strong animals, farmers can earn little money. Little money means little food. It is important to note that cattle are not just providers of milk and meat for communities: a healthy cow or calf sold at market pays for medicine and schooling, it allows food to be bought and set aside for the tough times. When cattle die, whole futures can be lost.

And so it all goes on – wheel within wheel, cycle after cycle. This week many aid agencies have launched emergency appeals in response to the East Africa droughts. The Disasters and Emergencies Committee, of which CAFOD is a member, is also launching its appeal. Helping those in dire need right now is what we must do. These are our brothers and sisters.

But the international community also has a duty to address the causes and exacerbators of poverty head-on. It is simply wrong that so many people go hungry; it is wrong that so many people can’t find a way out of being dirt poor. It is time we, in developed countries, stepped out of our whited sepulchres to do everything within our collective power to improve the lives of millions of people across the poorest countries on the planet – not just in times of humanitarian emergencies, but for good.

To donate to CAFOD’s East Africa drought appeal, please visit http://www.cafod.org.uk/eastafrica


© Pascale Palmer is Senior Policy Media Officer for CAFOD - www.cafod.org.uk

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