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05/05/2017

Like the four countries facing extreme hunger crises today, the famine that gripped Ethiopia from 1983 to 1985 struggled for attention until it was far too late.

Like the four countries facing extreme hunger crises today, the famine that gripped Ethiopia from 1983 to 1985 struggled for attention until it was far too late.

There was conflict. There had been years of consecutive drought – similar to Somalia now. The government spent its money on fighting, not aid. The rich world eventually reacted, with Bob Geldof and Live Aid at the forefront of a public funding campaign. But access in a time of war was hard. By 1984, 200,000 mostly starving Ethiopians had died, young children often the first to go. The final toll was closer to one million.

More than three decades later, the stakes are arguably even higher. A badly strained humanitarian system finds itself facing not one but four vast challenges. In all, more than 20 million people are at risk of starvation and famine across South Sudan, Somalia, Yemen, and northeastern Nigeria.


More than three decades later, the stakes are arguably even higher. A badly strained humanitarian system finds itself facing not one but four vast challenges. In all, more than 20 million people are at risk of starvation and famine across South Sudan, Somalia, Yemen, and northeastern Nigeria.

Much has been learnt since 1984: the value of building resilience before crises arrive, the role climate change plays, the imperative of early conflict prevention, the importance of cash aid, the need to prioritise water as well as food. Nonetheless, the goal posts for those struggling to reach the world’s most vulnerable and provide them with life-saving assistance have shifted. Why?

The simple answer is conflict. It’s the one factor that afflicts all four famine-facing regions listed above. And that’s not to mention how the effects of war in places like Iraq and Syria, including the mass migration to Europe, have drained valuable humanitarian resources and donor dollars.

As Nancy Lindborg, president of the US Institute of Peace, pointed out in testimony last week before the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, “humanitarian assistance flows have shifted from 80 percent of global aid going to victims of natural disasters to now 80 percent going to assist victims of violent conflict.”

Unfortunately, Lindborg’s remarks may well have fallen on deaf ears: President Donald Trump’s administration is threatening draconian cuts to the State Department’s budget, affecting US funding for everything from UN peacekeeping to the United Nations Development Programme and UNICEF.

And garnering the attention required to generate the $4.4 billion the UN says is required by July to stave off a humanitarian “catastrophe” is only part of the battle. Devising the correct response strategy and securing the necessary access in complex and fragmented war zones is likely to be even harder.

These four famines or near-famines do have similarities, but they also have different origins, different trajectories, and therefore different needs. Local factors are at play, with each country prone to its own combination of flaring conflict, weak governance, poor infrastructure, and failing markets.

Video: Inside the perfect storm of famine

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