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Again? Already? Another Famine in Africa

Another famine in Africa. It feels like we have been here before. All too frequently. As this issue of Target goes to press, TEAR is actively working to mobilise support for our famine response work, and I have to admit that this time around it feels like harder work than usual. Why is the response so much slower than the appeal we made for the Nepal earthquake two years ago which impacted millions fewer, when the United Nations is calling this the worst crisis since the end of WWII?

There are likely a few reasons. First, people tend to respond (and donate) to disasters that are in the news – and the reality is that famine in Africa is not getting much bandwidth in our current news cycles. It is also a slow onset disaster – which means it is building over time and thus doesn’t have the same sudden impact of an earthquake.

Again? Already? Another Famine in Africa

It could also be because the causes of earthquakes and tsunamis are beyond our control – and may invoke greater sympathy for the victims. In today’s world, famines are often the result of human failings and can be prevented – and it is frustrating that they are not.

I also wonder if some of the problem is the ‘here we are again’ feeling – a view articulated in an email I received yesterday from a TEAR supporter who said “we are very sad to see that it is the poor people of East Africa that are still suffering after all these years. Can you please share some factors contributing to this sad situation continuing and repeating for so long.”

It is a fair question – and one that doesn’t get answered in the NGO fundraising campaigns appealing for help. In fundraising, the urgency of the need can drive simple messages – since simple is good for generating support. However, simplicity rarely is the course for solving complex challenges.

It broke my heart and made me angry; emotions I still feel today when I read the stories of families struggling through famine and drought. My anger comes from knowing that there is more than enough money and food in the world to ensure everyone has enough to eat and drink. People don’t need to die from famine in 2017.

I have lived and worked on-the-ground in Africa through the midst of past famines. In 1992 Southern Africa was in the grip of a food crisis – the New York Times headline describing the situation read: “Southern Africa hit by its worst drought in the 20th Century”. It was my first experience of living in the midst of a community facing the devastating impact of a famine. During that time, I remember visiting families whose vulnerable members – the young children and the elderly – were dying.

It broke my heart and made me angry; emotions I still feel today when I read the stories of families struggling through famine and drought. My anger comes from knowing that there is more than enough money and food in the world to ensure everyone has enough to eat and drink. People don’t need to die from famine in 2017. Are the words from Matthew 25, “I was hungry and you fed me, thirsty and you gave me something to drink”, pertinent to us and our responses for our brothers and sisters in Africa? Of course they are and of course we need to respond. But what are the best actions we can take?

To develop appropriate solutions we need to understand the underlying causes. While every famine is unique to its context, there are several common issues that are found across famines in Africa.

1) Conflict and War.

TEAR has a commitment to work in places where the needs are greatest – which means many of our projects are located in places facing conflict. There is a somewhat obvious and pervasive link between poverty and conflict – and the same interrelationship is true for food security and conflict. Parts of South Sudan that have previously been agriculturally productive have been devastated over the past few years by the civil war. Of course this means they are not producing food to feed communities.

Somalia is another case in point. The regions in the North which have faced less conflict have been more agriculturally productive (thus resilient to drought) than the South, where families have faced continuous fighting and are struggling to survive. Yemen and Nigeria are also facing famine and have endured violent conflict. Clearly, war and famine are interconnected.

2) Weak government.

While good governance can play a helpful role in avoiding famine and reducing loss of life when food insecurity does occur, the inverse is also true. Weak governance systems mean that the infrastructure, rule of law, and administrative mechanisms fail those in great need. Good governance can provide the requisite systems and infrastructure to coordinate humanitarian responses and to help them work most efficiently. We saw during the earthquake response in Nepal the way that a federal government can impede successful and efficient aid delivery. It is near impossible to address complex humanitarian emergency situations in a sustainable way without the coordinating role of effective national and local government.

3) Climate issues.

Drought and shifting weather patterns continue to exacerbate food and water security issues throughout the East Africa region. Our local Christian partners are working with communities and small scale farmers who are directly impacted by the effects of climate change. We hear their stories at a community-level, but as we step back and look at a more regional level we read that for Africa, “scientists predict that between 90 million to 220 million people will be exposed to increased water stress due to climate change by the year 2020. This would be devastating for a region that is already prone to water-related issues. Agricultural production in many African countries and regions is predicted to be negatively affected by climate change. Crop yields from agriculture that is rain fed could decrease by up to 50 percent by 2020, and 94 percent of the continent’s agriculture is already rain-dependent. This would also have severely negative impacts on food security on the continent.”1

4) Poverty.

Families that are living with the challenges of economic poverty have very thin buffers protecting them when crops fail, wells run dry, and food runs out. One failed season and the family is immediately vulnerable to significant crisis. Poverty makes people vulnerable to famine, and famines force people into greater poverty.

5) Lack of commitment from the global community.

Finally, one of the drivers of famine is the lack of resolve among the global community to help prevent these things from happening. In 2017, we have better systems then at any point in history to help understand and predict future threats to food security. Those systems may be in place, but the sad truth is that the early warning bells were set off many months ago with very little response. While prevention is better than a cure, preventing famine in Africa simply doesn’t register high on most nations’ international diplomacy hierarchy. Our continued cuts to the Aid program in Australia, which includes significant reductions in funding for Africa, are tangibly evident as this crisis worsens.

So in the midst of this, what can we do when famine occurs? Is it all hopeless? The good news is that there are things we can do to respond to this immediate crisis and to prevent future famines from occurring.

The good news is that there are things we can do to respond to this immediate crisis and to prevent future famines from occurring.

First and foremost – give generously. While the causes of famine may be complex, life-saving solutions are surprisingly accessible and affordable. For example, TEAR’s partner Medair is working in Somalia to save children’s lives with food supplements and community-based medical care.

Second – get serious about climate change. Living justly is a scriptural mandate for all believers and means caring for creation and recognising that the lifestyle choices we make impact our global neighbours. In the case of climate, this particularly impacts the poor. I expect that this call to action on climate will be the most controversial thing I will say in this article. I am regularly (just today in fact!) responding to correspondence that I receive from Australian Christians who either don’t believe in climate change, don’t believe it is an issue TEAR should be involved with, or don’t believe humans can impact climate. All relatively easy positions to take when you are not facing the immediate impact of climate change. Every day, TEAR is involved with communities who are being hurt by the changes in climate – people who can attest to its very real impact on their lives. I encourage you to support the Renew Our World campaign, which addresses the challenges of creation care and environmental stewardship as well as ways we can respond. For more information, see fortomorrow.org.au/renewourworld

Third, support peace building initiatives. Scripture calls us to be ‘ambassadors of reconciliation’ and most of TEAR’s work in complex environments has peace building and reconciliation as core aspects of their methodology. Without lasting peace, we will continue to see nations devastated by the impacts of war, including famine. Consider supporting these types of initiatives through the work of TEAR and consider how your political voice and vote puts peace as a priority.

Finally, please pray. Pray for the people struggling to survive. Pray for the work of the local church in the communities facing famine. Pray for the agencies who are trying to make a positive difference. Pray for God’s kingdom to come and will be done – that all may have their daily bread.

Please don’t let apathy or the ‘here we go again’ mentality harden your heart. You can act and save lives today.

Matthew Maury is TEAR Australia’s National Director.

  1. Foresight Africa report for 2017 from the Brookings Institute


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