Five Thoughts on the Famine in the Horn of Africa

August 5, 2011
by John Fawcett, Global Legislative Director

The mission of RESULTS is to create the political will to end hunger and the worst aspects of poverty. The images we’ve seen over the last couple of weeks from the famine in the Horn of Africa are a sobering reminder of what the “worst aspects” can look like.

Here are a few things we’re thinking about this crisis, how it intersects with our advocacy efforts, and how you can help.

1. The scale and intensity of the crisis are shocking. This drought – the worst in some 60 years in the Horn – has left 12.4 million people across Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya and Djibouti in need of emergency assistance. That’s roughly the population of Pennsylvania.

This is the statistic that really grabbed my attention: in Somalia, an estimated 29,000 kids under five have already died in the last 90 days.

In emergency situations, one of the key indicators that epidemiologists measure is the number of deaths per 10,000 people (population) per day. The threshold for famine is 2 per 10,000 per day. Throughout southern Somalia the under-5 death rate is at least twice that. In the hardest hit areas, the under-5 death rate is an astounding 13 per 10,000 per day. That’s the equivalent of 10 percent of all children dying every 11 weeks.

2. Many organizations are on the ground responding, and they’re asking for your help. Our friends at InterAction have compiled a good list of organizations that are responding to the crisis, a description of their work in the region, and how to donate.

3. As bad as the situation is, anti-poverty programs over the last decade have ensured things aren’t even worse. While millions are in need, millions more would be suffering if not for successful efforts to improve health, nutrition, and food security.

The situation in Ethiopia illustrates the point.  In the 2002-03 drought affecting this same region, more than 13 million Ethiopians needed emergency relief. Today, even though the current drought is actually more severe, less than 5 million Ethiopians are in need of emergency assistance. That’s still a lot of people, but it’s 8 million fewer than just a few years ago. Ethiopia’s massive expansion of community health workers and clinics, efforts to improve food security and social safety nets, and early warning systems to detect hunger have all helped mitigate the impact of the crisis in that country. These long term investments can break the link between drought and famine, and build resilience in vulnerable communities. Even as famine rages, there’s a quiet foreign aid success story to be told.

4. FY12 budget cuts will undermine our immediate and long-term ability to respond to hunger and famine. Last week the House State-Foreign Operations Subcommittee approved a foreign aid spending bill that would decimate our capacity to prevent and respond to exactly the kind of crisis that is unfolding in the Horn of Africa right now.  Compared to FY11 levels, this bill proposes cutting global health by 9 percent, development assistance by 18 percent, and the President’s Feed the Future initiative, which focuses on nutrition and food security, by a whopping 25 percent. The accounts that fund rapid disaster assistance and refugee assistance were slashed 12 and 11 percent, respectively. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees reports that 1,500 people are crossing from Somalia to Kenya every day.

In her speech at the RESULTS International Conference, Marion Wright Edelman said, “there are some cuts that do not heal.” The cuts proposed by the House have the potential to do real and lasting damage to health, nutrition, and anti-poverty programs.

Fortunately, these cuts are not yet final.  After the August recess, the House and Senate appropriations committees will have to pass their final versions of the foreign aid bill, and eventually send a compromise measure to the President for his signature. We’ve urged you to meet face-to-face with your members of Congress in their districts over the long August recess and oppose cuts to global health and poverty assistance. The current crisis in the Horn is a tragic, real-time example of why that assistance – less than 1 percent of our federal budget – is so urgently needed. Especially if your members of Congress sit on the Appropriations Committee, urge them to oppose cuts that kill.

5. Education is a critical part of the long term solution to war and famine. The situation in Somali makes clear that the worst conditions can occur when poverty intersects with political instability and war. Education is the cornerstone of stable societies and governments that are responsive to the needs of their citizens. Countries with higher primary schooling and a smaller gap between rates of boys’ and girls’ schooling tend to enjoy greater democracy, and democratic political institutions (such as power-sharing and fair elections) are more likely to exist in countries with higher literacy rates and education levels. Across societies, every year of schooling decreases a male’s chance of engaging in violent conflict by 20 percent. Education nourishes peace.

For the next few months we’ll be working on a campaign to spur bolder US leadership on global education. One of the first steps you can take in this campaign is to ask your member of Congress to co-sponsor the Education for All Act. This bipartisan bill would require a US strategy to achieve education for all, with a particular focus on kids affected by crisis and conflict. Of the 67 million children out of school, half are in conflict-affected countries.

If you have thoughts about how else RESULTS volunteers can respond to this crisis, or want to share what you’re doing in your community, please post them in the comments below.

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