Africa’s famine response — too little, perhaps too late

‘Africa should not wait’ for others to act
From Africa Renewal: 
page 5
South Sudan's independence day festivities: "We must get to work right away," said President Salva Kiir.More than 12 million people face severe famine in the Horn of Africa: They are looking for help not only from non-African donors, but also from African governments and citizens.
Photograph: Alamy Images / Feije Riemersma

Jerry Rawlings, a former president of Ghana and now the high representative for Somalia for the African Union (AU), visited a number of African capitals in July and August to drum up support for a pan-African conference on the famine in the Horn of Africa. “I believe African leadership will rise to the challenge,” he said over and over as he lobbied heads of state to attend the conference. But only four (from Ethiopia, Equatorial Guinea, Djibouti and Somalia) actually came to the 18 August gathering in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

The low turnout did not dampen Mr. Rawlings’s enthusiasm. In his forceful keynote address he urged Africa to convince “the rest of the world that we are not incapable of supporting our own.” African countries promised $50 million and the African Development Bank (ADB) pledged $300 million.

More than 12 million people are facing severe famine in the Horn of Africa [see Africa Renewal online]. Somalia and the other countries in the region need at least $2.5 billion to prevent more deaths, according to the UN World Food Programme. By August, before the AU donor conference, only 45 per cent of that amount had been received. With the $350 million raised at the AU meeting and with other contributions, the pledges had reached 77 per cent by mid-November, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

Late and inadequate

FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf commented in September that the international community’s response has been “delayed and inadequate.” Yet he was also encouraged by a mid-September meeting between Horn of Africa governments and representatives of the ADB and the World Bank, at which the banks pledged an additional $500 million for the region’s long-term development.

There is also ongoing criticism of African leaders’ slow response to the crisis. The pledging conference in Addis Ababa had been postponed  once to allow leaders time to mobilize funds. Activists maintain that the $50 million pledged by African governments is too little and that most of it is in the form of “in kind” assistance, while cash would give greater flexibility. Nor is there enough information about how the governments will provide the assistance.

'Embarrassing'

Nicanor Sabula of Africans Act 4 Africa, a coalition of civil society organizations, described the poor turnout at the donor conference as “disappointing and embarrassing.” He added that the response “starts to reinforce [the image of] the AU as a club of presidents.”

The criticisms, however, do not take into account that some countries with large refugee populations, such as Kenya, are providing other forms of relief. Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga announced in July that as of that point his government had spent $110 million on food for the more than 1 million refugees now in Kenya.

Mr. Rawlings is now also actively canvassing the private sector to support relief efforts. While African governments pledged only $50 million at the Addis Ababa meeting, ordinary Kenyans, with support from private businesses, raised more than $60 million in less than three months. Kanayo Nwanze, head of the UN’s International Fund for Agricultural Development, commented: “Africa should not wait for the international community to solve its problems.”