The West must learn lessons of history to avert tragedy in Africa

Articles and op-ed

Kevin Rudd and Andrew Mitchell

Published in: The Australian

25 July 2011

The crisis in the Horn of Africa is a looming catastrophe. But it's a catastrophe the international community can avoid. If we learn lessons from the past and act fast, we can save hundreds of thousands of lives.

The UN estimates this is the most severe food security challenge in Africa for 20 years.

The extent of the crisis is daunting and the figures are so enormous it is easy to forget that each number is a human life.

More than 11 million people are in need of urgent humanitarian assistance across Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia and Djibouti.

UNICEF has labelled the situation in Somalia the children's famine with reports that two million young children in the region are malnourished and in immediate need of help.

There are more than half a million Somalis in the refugee camps and 50,000 arrived last month with nearly half of the children under five starving. They could be seen as the lucky ones as nearly 800,000 Somalis have fled their homes in search of safety.

These numbers are mothers with feet cut to ribbons after walking for weeks in search of safety for their families. They are children who have lost their brothers and sisters before help arrived. And parents forced to watch as their children starve to death.

The UN has declared a famine in two regions of southern Somalia, fuelled by a mix of violence, high food prices and drought.

The British and Australian public have responded with incredible generosity. Our governments are also providing considerable support as our two countries lead the world in decisive action to make clear it is obscene that any child should starve to death.

Britain and Australia will provide lifesaving support, including food and water, for almost four million people to meet this challenge head on. This measure could relieve the most desperate suffering for these people and buy some time before the next possible harvest in the autumn.

But the response from some wealthy, developed countries has been derisory and dangerously inadequate. It is shameful that there are European nations that have donated less than Sudan, which despite its relative poverty is still doing what it can to help its international neighbours.

The UN appeals are still underfunded by $US1 billion. Britain and Australia urge the rest of the world to join them to work to prevent this humanitarian disaster turning into a catastrophe on a scale of the 1984 Ethiopian famine. The comparisons in Somalia are obvious.

The international response back then from both the public and their governments was eventually immense. But with hindsight it would have been more effective if the international community had acted sooner.

The warning signals were similar to those we are confronted with today. A drought in Ethiopia in 1981 was compounded by a large scale crop failure in 1984. Yet because of the Ethiopian civil war and the reluctance of western governments to get involved, the full scale international response was not in place until 1985.

The human cost of the late intervention was catastrophic, the crisis was left largely unchecked in its early stages and eventually took a million lives.

Fortunately, many lessons have been learned since then. We now have early warning systems in place to ensure we are alert to these problems before there is a full-blown disaster across the Horn of Africa.

This is about making sure food, water and medicines are in the right place, at the right time, to ensure people avoid starvation.

Second, we are working to ensure that countries are prepared for disasters before they hit.Our aid programs are targeting those most at risk in advance, making people less reliant on fragile crops and communities more resilient as a whole. The scale of the crisis now would be much bigger if it had not been for these sort of preventive measures.

Third, we now have a better understanding of the importance of quick action. Emergency relief agencies are far better co-ordinated and can provide accurate data on the scope of the situation and funding needs.

But challenges remain and they are not restricted to the need for more money. There are issues with delivering assistance and it is no coincidence that the worst hit areas are among the most unstable and isolated.

Nor are the needed interventions simple. In fact, operations in Somalia are among the highest risk in the world. Tragically, since 2008, 14 World Food Program relief workers have been killed there. The people hardest to reach are the ones most in need. If we are unable or unwilling to access these regions we will not be able to prevent a further escalation of the crisis.

That is why we channel our support through trusted partners, such as UNICEF, and British and Australian NGOs, to get life-saving help to those who need it most. We do not engage with Al Shabaab but urge them to stand by their commitment to allow humanitarian aid through unhindered to people in desperate need.

In the longer term we need to look at the systemic issues that are driving food insecurity across Africa and globally.

The current situation is exceptionally severe but not unique. The region has had six food crises in the past 30 years. As important as humanitarian relief is, our aim is to get to a stage where it is no longer needed as people become less vulnerable when disasters strike.

The world is now tackling food security and Britain and Australia are playing a leading role. We are investing heavily in agricultural research and development.

We are investing in African businesses and support for microfinance initiatives, as well as publicising the damage that restrictive trade policies do to developing countries. The first G20 Development Ministers meeting at the end of September will be an opportunity to develop practical measures to address challenges.

The challenge before us is stark. The international community has the opportunity to save countless lives. But to do so our response needs to be rapid, flexible and mindful of the mistakes of the past. We need to act now to avert an avoidable catastrophe.

Kevin Rudd is Foreign Minister. Andrew Mitchell is the British International Development Secretary.

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