Africa op-ed

An op-ed on the drought crisis in East Africa. It appeared between September 12-18, 2009, in the Vancouver Sun, Edmonton Journal, Windsor Star, Saint John Telegraph-Journal and St. John’s Telegram.

Another hunger crisis in Africa. Ho hum.

For those of us who survived the 80s, the 1984 famine in Ethiopia is difficult to forget. Massive news coverage permanently embedded in our minds the image of the starving African child with the bloated belly. Scores of celebrities rushed to join the cause. Live Aid became one of the most watched events in TV history. Millions of dollars were raised.

On the 25th anniversary of the famine, it’s not just Ethiopia facing another disaster. Kenya, Somalia, and other East African neighbours face a potential famine because of a perfect storm of crop failures, lack of rain, wars and internal political conflict. In 1984, eight million were people affected. Now it’s over 20 million.

Clear the front pages! Dispatch the media teams! Cue the celebrities!

… or not.

How times have changed. A small handful of Canadian journalists are in East Africa getting the story, but don’t expect to see it on the front page. When informed of a hunger crisis in Africa, the average news assignment editor will most often politely respond: “Yes, but what’s the news?”

The average Canadian isn’t much different. A story about an abused puppy that has been rescued will have us jumping for the remote to bump the volume. Twenty million starving Africans is just the 10-second news clip we have to wait through to hear more about the puppy. After 25 years of one crisis after another in this part of Africa or that, too many of us have become desensitized. Blasé. Another war… another famine…

I believe that part of the problem is how the story is told; it’s up to organizations like CARE Canada to improve how we tell the stories of those affected by such disasters. One abused puppy is easy to understand. Twenty million starving people is just too big and impersonal to comprehend. What we really need to hear about is Paninah. She is a mother of two school-age children in an urban area just outside Nairobi, Kenya. She’s poor but independent, and she, like many Canadians, works multiple jobs to support her family. But it’s getting harder to find work. The drought has reached into the cities, and even the crops in the small urban agricultural plots have failed. The price for both in Nairobi has literally doubled. So now Paninah struggles to buy food and water. She does not have a food bank to go to, nor employment insurance to help her get through this rough patch. This is any parent’s nightmare: Paninah is completely on her own. Once self-sufficient, she does not know what tomorrow will bring her or her children.

Now that we know Paninah, this is no longer about the story of 20 million faceless people. It’s the story of a real person, struggling to make ends meet just like all of us – but facing greater odds than most. Now the story is personal.

And even though the crisis sounds like the same old story, it really is news. There are new and frightening elements. This time there is a perfect storm, and it’s hitting not just one country but an entire region. In recent years there has been the ongoing internal conflict in Somalia, war between Ethiopia and Somalia, and the 2008 post-election violence in Kenya. The normal ability of people to cope with environmental disaster has been significantly reduced. Many parts of the Horn of Africa are experiencing an unprecedented fifth consecutive year of drought. The drought and crop failures spreading into parts of Kenya that have until now been mostly unaffected – brought on by climate change. And for the first time the drought is reaching into the urban centres of Kenya to a degree not seen before, affecting the urban poor like Paninah. Malnutrition rates are now up around 18 per cent.

A sign of how serious the situation is: last week the Humanitarian Coalition decided the East Africa hunger crisis warranted the launch of a joint appeal. The Humanitarian Coalition is a partnership of some of Canada’s leading aid agencies – CARE Canada, Oxfam Canada, Oxfam Quebec and Save the Children. In the most critical emergencies these four groups set aside their individual fundraising appeals and work together in order to increase efficiency and ensure an even greater percentage of Canadian donations gets to those who need it the most. The last time the Humanitarian Coalition launched a joint appeal was in May 2008, when Cyclone Nargis killed over 100,000 people in Burma.

At the end of the day, yes… it’s another drought in Africa. They happen. With climate change they are happening more often. This drought is complicated by conflicts. Those happen too. However while we can’t prevent all droughts and we can’t prevent all conflicts, we can prevent hunger. 2009 does not have to turn into 1984 redux. If we have to wait for Bob Geldof to organize another concert, though, it’ll already be too late.

But first we have to stop seeing just another crisis in Africa. This time, we have to make it personal.

Kevin McCort, President and CEO
CARE Canada

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