Help desperately needed now in East Africa
by Ronan Scully
As I write this article a human tragedy that is one of the worst that the world has experienced in half a century is playing out in one of the poorest regions of the world.
I’m not speaking, as many might guess, about the awful war that has been raging for the best part of a year in Ukraine and of which I have spent time there during the last year working and helping the people and hospitals in Ukraine.
Rather, this human tragedy has been unfolding away from the photographer's lens and the TV camera’s gaze – in the north-eastern corner of Africa – a region known to many as the Horn of Africa that includes Ethiopia and Somalia at its centre.
These countries and a wider span of East Africa that also includes Kenya, to the south, is facing a catastrophic hunger crisis caused by one of the worst droughts in living memory.
It is looking increasingly likely that a fifth consecutive rainy season has failed in the region, leaving millions of families in a desperate situation and facing starvation. Both local commentators and international observers blame the current crisis on global warming and serious conflicts in some of the countries in East Africa, together with an inability of rural poor and vulnerable households to adapt to the effects of changing climate on their ability to produce the crops that they need to put food on the table, from one month to the next.
Recent Visit to East Africa
During recent visits to East Africa in the last few months on a few occasions especially to Ethiopia and Kenya I witnessed how drought, conflict, loss of livelihood and crop failures are leaving devastation in its wake. The coming months, which are typically the driest time of the year in East Africa, as many as 36 million people and children are at risk, according to reports.
It is vital that the international community keep a focus on this crisis.
This emergency has been caused by a lethal cocktail of crises, which have come one on top of the other. The unprecedented droughts and floods have undoubtedly been exacerbated by climate change, a clear example of the devastating loss and damage that these communities did little to cause. It is tragic, uncaring and unjust that those who contributed the least to climate change, in terms of emissions, are among those suffering the most from it. Nine out of the 10 most climate-vulnerable countries in the entire world are in sub-Saharan Africa. As to emissions, of the 20 countries most affected by climate change, between them they account for only 0.55 per cent of global emissions.
Meanwhile, a series of regional conflicts have destabilised a region with a history of ethnic tensions, while war in Ukraine has meant that supplies of essentials like grain and cooking oil are not getting through.
Although a full-scale famine is yet to be officially declared, what we are seeing on the ground is a famine in all but name. Services that treat malnutrition are struggling to cope with the numbers. Despite the rapidly mounting death toll, the international response is woefully underfunded.
East Africa's global request for help couldn’t come at a worse time, as other large-scale humanitarian crises unfold in places like Ukraine, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Pakistan and South Sudan.
But we cannot turn our backs on this crisis — we must learn from what the history books tell us about the region. You need only look back to the East of Africa drought in 2011, which affected 13 million people and resulted in more than 250,000 dying from hunger. Back then, the early warning signs began to emerge a full year earlier, yet the international community took until the peak of the crisis to act at a sufficient level.
Some of the East Africa Governments as have Irish Aid have responded strongly, unlocking funding and showing real leadership. They expect to be able to handle some of the impact of the emergency themselves. Aid agencies are helping too. Now the international community must heed the warning and act urgently.
I have something of a ‘vested interest’ in what happens in Ethiopia and East Africa. It’s a connection that started way back in 1984, when the images from Michael Buerk’s BBC report on the famine prompted me to change my own life, and begin a career that has seen me spend my life since then working to support the poor of the developing world.
I worked in Ethiopia and East Africa for a long number of years, and a very important little part of the incredible country of Ethiopia came closer to home in recent times, when we adopted two beautiful Ethiopian angels, Mia and Sophie, to create the family that we have today. I have travelled to Ethiopia, Kenya and parts of East Africa many times, and was back there recently in the last few months with my work and awareness raising of the unfolding crisis there and to see for myself first hand the devastation the effects the drought is having on Ethiopia's, Kenya's and East Africa's people especially its most vulnerable the elderly, women and children.
Extreme weather is a driver of world hunger.
As global temperatures and sea levels rise, the result is more heat waves, droughts, floods, cyclones and wildfires. Those conditions make it difficult for farmers to grow food and for the hungry to get it.
The climate crisis is a crisis of natural disasters, of floods and storms and heat waves. But it also directly leads to a food, water and agriculture security crisis. It makes it much harder to feed people.
Agriculture can be a solution to hunger in Africa if long-term investments are made. It’s responsible for up to 42% of total GDP in sub-Saharan Africa and is 2.5 times more effective than other sectors at lowering rates of poverty. Self Help Africa is supporting farmers at local, national and regional levels to improve crop yields and profitability by providing better access to markets, quality seed, training and support.
Reaping the benefits of growing alternative and climate-resistant crops relies on farmers having the knowledge to manage them. To achieve this, training and education is hugely important.
Help Make a Difference
The littlest things can help make a difference. Simple examples of this difference include the church gate collections and charity walks and events in many parts of our country. It is in this way that we can all play our part in helping to bring an end to hunger, poverty and misery in Africa.
Though I saw suffering on my last trips to Kenya and Ethiopia , I also met some truly beautiful people – all of them friendly and welcoming. I came away feeling richly blessed to have met them and as though I was the one being helped, not the other way round.
My lasting impression of Kenya and Ethiopia on my most recent trips was not the scale of their poverty, but the spirit of their people. Drought, climate change, hunger and physical suffering have not stolen their hope. They remain joyful when they have every reason to be depressed.
Self Help Africa has played its part in helping the people and small holding farmers of Ethiopia to move towards a time where hunger and poverty will no longer be a part of their future. It is a long and slow road certainly, but as I saw on my recent visits to Ethiopia and Kenya and parts of East Africa, it is a journey that is both richly rewarding and worthwhile.
If you want to find out more about our work, please visit www.selfhelpafrica.org To make a donation or find out more about the work of Self Help Africa with its work and to “Act locally but impact globally”, you can make a credit or laser card donation by phoning ((01 ) 6778880 or simply send whatever you can afford to Self Help Africa, Westside Resource Centre, Seamus Quirke Road, Westside, Galway.
Ronan Scully from Clara works with Self Help Africa