Horn of Africa faces biggest
ever famine threat

Politics as much as drought to blame, say experts

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Minister for Africa Vicky Ford insists the UK is still taking a leadership role in the humanitarian effort in East Africa despite claims this is no longer the case.

The Horn of Africa is facing its biggest ever threat of famine as the rain has failed for the past four seasons – the longest the region has gone without rainfall for 40 years.

In Somalia alone 40 per cent of the population is suffering acute levels of hunger, but Ford is adamant British authorities are doing what they can to help.

“The drought that’s affecting East Africa is the worst humanitarian crisis in the world and famine and hunger is absolutely causing huge tragedy and havoc for people’s lives,” she said.

Acutely food insecure

“What we as the UK have tried to do is to get in early, as early as possible, so that’s why I travelled to both Kenya and Ethiopia back in February and right then I announced the first stage of funding that the UK was putting into this area – at that point it was £17 million.

“Since then, we’ve also got international support to try and get more international donors and the good news is that’s helped to mobilise just over $1 billion [£800 million] of support for the region.”

The UK government helped the region out in 2017 when it found itself in a similar situation, but thanks to a £700 million injection from the Western nation, thousands of deaths were avoided. But now only a small fraction of that has been donated by the UK so far.

Action Against Hunger, an international charity, warns that there are around 15 million people across Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia who are considered acutely food insecure by the UN. The World Food Programme says an estimated 7.2 million people wake up hungry every day in southern and south-eastern Ethiopia

“Loss of leadership”

But Action Against Hunger does not believe the UK is leading the international community with its response to the crisis in East Africa and is calling on it to do more.

Kate Munro, head of advocacy at the charity, said the UK should not be taking a back seat given the multitude of challenges the region is facing.

“In 2017 Britain led on hosting a major donor conference to try and galvanise the whole international community to really find a rapid response to the escalating drought situation and that will have saved thousands of lives because it prevented things escalating to the point of actual famine and mass deaths,” she said.

“Historically the UK has always been a really influential player in that region because of the historical ties between the UK and Kenya and Somalia. Now the UK has really stepped back from playing that leadership role.

“There was a donor conference for Somalia a month ago at which the UK pledged £25 million, which is good, but back in 2017 they committed £700 million to the humanitarian response and not only did that in itself make a big difference but it also helped galvanise other donors to do the same. So giving a fraction of that is really indicating a loss of leadership.”

But there are more forces at play in this humanitarian crisis than climate change and a lack of funding.

A variety of major incidents and crises have coincided to the detriment of East Africa and some academics have pointed to conflicts in the region as the cause for the shortage of food.

The Somalian government is becoming increasingly fragile as insurgent group al-Shabab is seeking to take over control and establish its own rule in the country, while in Ethiopia there is an ongoing war between the federal government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, which rules the northern part of the country.

Precarious political landscape

Carl Death, senior lecturer in international political economy at Manchester University, believes the precarious political landscape in these countries is causing
a major threat of famine.

“These continuous crises and famines, particularly in the Horn of Africa, often come across or are portrayed as natural disasters that are more or less inevitable in places in the world like this and that’s not the case at all,” said Death.

“There’s enough food in the world – there’s even enough food in the region. What’s happening in places like Ethiopia and Somalia, and Kenya also to a certain extent, is where the control of crops and food become another political and economic weapon in the hands of elites and warring parties.

“It’s the conflict in the area, particularly the breakdown of the state in Somalia over a gradual period of time and the conflict in Northern Ethiopia. Those are why there’s a real risk of famine.”

Ford has also acknowledged that parts of the region are particularly volatile, and said the UK government has called for an end to the conflict in Ethiopia, but humanitarian aid is only now reaching those areas. It has been warned that 350,000 children will die in Somalia alone if action isn’t taken.

Ukraine deflects attention

“We’ve been consistently calling for a ceasefire in Ethiopia and the good newsis that at the moment it looks as if violence in the north has de-escalated,” said Ford.

“It’s still a very volatile part of the world so we continue to call upon all sides and work with all sides to de-escalate.

“We’ve now started to see the first flow of humanitarian aid into Tigray which is really, really welcome. A very significant proportion of those trucks going into Tigray have been paid for by the UK government thanks to brilliant UK taxpayers.”

Olayinka Ajala, lecturer in politics and international relations at Leeds Beckett University and consultant to the Ministry of Defence, thinks the war in Ukraine has had a massive impact on East Africa as it has deflected attention and publicity, which it received in 2017, away from the region.

Eighty per cent of Britons are unaware that East Africa is on the brink of famine, while 91 per cent are well versed in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, according to a poll recently carried out by Christian Aid.

Rise in global commodities

“The war in Ukraine is a big problem because it’s shifted attention,” Ajala said.

“One of the issues is that a lot of people are not aware of what’s going on in East Africa, so there is not a lot of publicity or attention compared to 2017 when there was a similar drought, and the response was faster and greater, in comparison.

“Now because of the war in Ukraine this shift has gone to that part of the world and other conflicts. Not just what is happening in East Africa, but the conflict in Yemen has received very little attention in the last couple of months since February when Russia invaded Ukraine.”

Russia’s military action against Ukraine is not only grabbing the headlines but preventing food and fuel exports to the African continent.

“Even before the Ukraine crisis in some parts of Somalia staple foods had doubled in price just in a few months,” said Munro. “The Ukraine crisis is driving a really severe rise in global commodities, prices of food, fertiliser, fuel and particularly wheat.

“The surge in wheat prices has an impact on East Africa because Ethiopia gets 90 per cent of its imported wheat from Ukraine and Russia.”

Photo: a child displaced by drought holds her nose as she walks past the rotting carcasses of goats that died from hunger and thirst on the outskirts of Dollow, Somalia. The UK government has been warned that 350,000 children could be at risk of death in Somalia (Sally Hayden/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

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