Belfast Telegraph

We cannot afford to wait for yet another disaster

A year after the East African famine, governments and NGOs must learn to respond more quickly to international crises, says Jim Clarken

One year on from the worst food crisis this century, the situation in East Africa has improved dramatically. After reaching close to three million people during the worst of the crisis, Oxfam is repairing boreholes, kitting out farmers with new tools and teaching pastoralists, who move with the seasons, how to grow crops for the first time.

After years of poor rainfall, families are now staying on their farms, sowing next season's harvest and sending their children to school.

However, there are serious lessons to be drawn from the famine in Somalia last year, which killed at least 50,000 people and left millions across northern Kenya and Southern Ethiopia destitute.

If we don't change the way we approach food crises the world faces an imminent risk of major setbacks in combating the scourge of hunger.

Firstly, the international community needs to respond earlier to crises. This means acting on information from early-warning systems; not waiting for pictures of starving people to appear on our TV screens.

Secondly, we need to improve resilience-building measures on the ground. That means supporting local food production, protecting the vulnerable and making food affordable to the poorest people.

However, building resilience against future shocks will be challenging. The Horn of Africa will continue to suffer from ever more frequent bouts of irregular rainfall in the years ahead.

This threatens to consign more people to poverty, as farmers find it more difficult to plan when to sow and harvest their crops.

If climate change continues at its current rate, 12m more children will be consigned to hunger by 2050. Meanwhile, demand for food is set to grow by 70% globally by the same date. For example, prices for basic food commodities, such as rice, wheat and maize, will rise by 60-80% over the next two decades.

Combined with the impact of climate change and the rapid demographic changes taking place today, a vicious circle of vulnerability and hunger is occurring in some of the world's poorest countries.

How do we combat that? Dismantling support measures for bio-fuels, currently $20bn worldwide, is one step. This is because, when fertile agricultural land and crops such as sugar cane are used for fuel and not food, there is less for people to eat, which in turn pushes up prices.

But giving support to developing countries to grow their own capacity is even more important.

Throughout the developing world, there is huge untapped potential for farmers to boost yields. However, there has been very little investment in the sector.

This makes the case for a massive, government-led investment in smallholder and supporting infrastructure quite clear.

The 500m small farms in developing countries support almost two billion people - nearly one third of humanity. But between 1983 and 2006, the share of agriculture in official development assistance fell from 20.4% to 3.7% in real terms. Helping smallholders grow their own food will mean less lives lost during periods of extreme drought, which will in turn help communities adapt to climate change.

It is also a good deal for taxpayers. According to Government, it would cost $21bn more to respond to humanitarian crises as they happened over the next 20 years than delivering simple resilience-building measures now.

Governments, donors, the UN and NGOs need to change their approach to chronic drought situations by managing the risks, not the crisis. We need to improve how the humanitarian system responds when warnings of a crisis are given and communities need help.

The fact there has been a famine in the 21st century is an abomination. Given Ireland's own experiences 160 years ago, it is time we consigned the term 'famine' to history.

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