Famine in Africa and the Middle East: a preventable tragedy

by Yves Daccord | https://twitter.com/ydaccordicrc | International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) - Switzerland
Friday, 3 March 2017 10:28 GMT

South Sudan, Leer region, ICRC food distribution. Credit: ICRC/Alyona Synenko

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

As the spectre of famine looms over several countries in Africa and the Middle East – with many millions of people suffering severe food insecurity and increasing numbers facing starvation – alarm bells are warning of a humanitarian mega-crisis unprecedented in recent history. While the situations in the four countries primarily affected – South Sudan, Somalia, Nigeria and Yemen – are all distinct, the overall scale of acute humanitarian needs in different places at the same time is immense. 

This appalling scenario forces some hard, albeit obvious, questions. Why does it take the declaration of “famine” and media images of people starving to death to wake the international community up to the dreadful suffering that has been unfolding in these countries for many years already, and that humanitarian organisations have for the most part been struggling to alleviate? Why is this happening at all? Moreover, what, if anything, can be done about it? 

The truth is that these tragic situations are all, in differing degrees, man-made and all are to a large extent preventable. 

The main cause of hunger – and of wider humanitarian need – in all four countries is protracted (and intractable) armed conflict. All are characterised by asymmetric warring parties, particularly fragmented and multiplying non-state armed groups; by a widespread lack of respect for even the most fundamental rules of international humanitarian law; and by a lack of any viable political solution to end them. In addition, all of these armed conflicts have regional repercussions, which in the case of northern Nigeria are being felt across the entire Lake Chad region. 

In South Sudan, more than three years of brutal armed conflict has resulted in economic collapse, with large-scale displacement, loss of agriculture and livestock, massive inflation, rising food prices, widespread hunger, and – in areas where specific criteria have been fulfilled – famine.  

In Somalia, northern Nigeria and Yemen, harsh climate conditions and environmental problems, including cyclical drought, are major factors in the current crises, but not decisive ones. Combined with chronic insecurity and fighting (more than a quarter of a century in the case of Somalia), and extremely constrained humanitarian access, the consequences are however catastrophic.  

Indeed, severe food insecurity and even famine is nothing new in many of these places. In Nigeria, more than 50 years before the current crisis, images of starving children drew attention to the plight of civilians caught up in the Biafran war. Around one million people died, mostly from famine and disease. In Yemen, decades of recurrent upheaval, drought and chronic impoverishment preceded the current calamitous situation – where two years of intensifying conflict have caused spiralling humanitarian needs including alarming levels of acute malnutrition, especially among children. And in Somalia, memories are still raw of the famine that killed more than a quarter of a million people just six years ago. 

Surely then, lessons have been learned and a repeat of such tragedies can be avoided?  

Answers are as obvious as they are challenging. In the absence of political solutions, there is clearly an urgent need not only for donor generosity and more humanitarian aid, but also ensuring that it reaches the people who need it most. This means ensuring better humanitarian access and proximity to the people directly affected, on both sides of frontlines. And this, in turn, means that both military forces and armed groups must meet their legal obligations to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian relief supplies to all those who need it. 

The basic message is simple: better respect for the rules of international humanitarian law and for the principle of humanity is the single best way to reduce suffering in war. 

Strengthening compliance with humanitarian law and preventing violations is therefore a fundamental prerequisite to achieving better protection for people affected by armed conflict.  

For the ICRC, this entails engaging with all parties to conflict – no matter how challenging this may be – in an effort to gain acceptance and access to people in need. 

Those needs may differ greatly in each context and the humanitarian response must be adapted accordingly. While humanitarian action is of course vital to save lives and meet short-term needs, the long-term nature of many of today’s wars means it is also increasingly necessary to sustain basic services and infrastructure in fragile environments, and at the same time boost livelihoods and build resilience against shocks. In places at risk of drought and ultimately famine, this may include improving access to clean water, strengthening nutritional programmes as well as hygiene awareness, protecting vital livestock against diseases and providing various forms of economic support.  

The onus is of course on those who wage war and those who support them to prevent these humanitarian crises from becoming even bigger tragedies, and ultimately to show the political will required to end the conflicts. Responding only when people are already dying of hunger will inevitably be too little, too late.