More than a month after the UN officially declared that the famine in East Africa is over, the region is continuing to count the tragic cost. Tens of thousands have died, millions are still in need of food or clean water, countless others remain displaced and the prospect of a further deterioration in conditions continuously looms.
Despite the phenomenal generosity of many ordinary people who dug deep to support relief efforts, it is painfully clear that the world was simply too slow in reacting to the most severe famine this century. The governments of France, Italy and Denmark came it for particular criticism from aid agencies at the time for their poor response, but the failures go far deeper than that.
A hard hitting report released by Oxfam and Save the Children earlier this year highlighted how international donors, aid agencies and the United Nations,as well as national governments, all failed to act upon early indications of the impending crisis and take the kind of preventative measures necessary to avert catastrophe.
The tragic lessons of this complacency must be quickly learned, for on the other side of the continent the threat of a new famine now hangs over some thirteen million people. Drought and soaring food prices across the Sahel region (encompassing Chad, Burkina Faso, Niger, Senegal, Mali and Mauritania) have left over one-in-ten people malnourished, with the situation threatening to rapidly spiral out of control.
Ominous reports are already emerging of people in Chad digging up ant hills to gather whatever small quantitates of grain they can. Meanwhile the situation is being exacerbated by conflict between the Malian government and Tuareg rebels, which has displaced almost 1% of Mali’s population, many into neighbouring states already struggling with the food shortages.
If West Africa is to avoid a repeat of the on-going humanitarian tragedy in the East, now must be the hour for action. By adapting existing programmes and putting in place the infrastructure for increased overseas support, all actors- domestic and foreign- can begin to implement preventative measures before the situation reaches a critical point. We can all play our part as well by donating towards this work.
Too many times governments have failed to save their people from starvation and the world has failed to help them. As hunger spreads across the Sahel, the men women and children of the region can only hope that- this time -it may be different.