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Futility of facts
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 04 - 08 - 2011

It is being called the worst drought in northeast Africa in 60 years. And it's getting worse. The crisis is intensifying, with more than 12 million people in Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia and Djibouti urgently needing help.
The UN and aid agencies are warning that the famine in Somalia, the worst-hit country, will grow in size and severity unless the world community responds with more aid because donations are failing to keep pace with the level of need.
By any yardstick of measurement Somalia is a failed state but the latest drought has thrown the country into even more chaos after having led to an unwelcome movement of Somalis into neighbouring Kenya and Ethiopia. Famine has been declared in two regions of southern Somalia but may soon engulf as many as six more regions of the lawless nation. The crisis is intensified by fighting in Somalia, much of which is controlled by Islamist Al-Shabab militias who have been preventing some aid agencies bringing in supplies.
This year, the food shortages in Somalia have been exacerbated by the lack of humanitarian access to many areas, and accompanied by a sharp increase in food prices. The insecurity, compounded by the drought, has led to migration in all directions in the region. Somali refugees fleeing violence and drought continue to stream into Kenya, with more than 40,000 arriving in July in the sprawling Dadaab camps, which now shelter more than 420,000, the highest monthly arrival rate in the camp's 20-year history.
Thus far the African Union has been unable to do much but announce a summit meeting on 9 August in Addis Ababa to pledge help for the victims of Somalia's drought.
As is almost always the case, outsiders are doing the work. Non-African efforts have had to make up for the slack of continental leaders. UNICEF has 5,000 tonnes of therapeutic and supplementary food supplies stored in France, Belgium and Italy, enough to feed 300,000 malnourished children for a month. The agency needs to bring 400 tonnes of supplies to its regional hub in Nairobi each week by air, a costly operation, until it can set up a food pipeline by sea in about six weeks.
Changing weather patterns have made droughts more common in the region but such information is of hardly any comfort nor is it allaying fears as drought and famine intensifies across the Horn of Africa.
Meantime, the list gets longer. Uganda could be the next country hit by alarming malnutrition rates due to drought. An estimated 600,000 people in drought-prone northern Uganda currently face moderate food insecurity, corresponding to phase two on a UN scale where five means famine.
The UN says another $1.4 billion is needed for the Horn of Africa. Statistics abound: Ten million people are currently on the verge of starvation. Tens of thousands have already died. There are over 2.3 million acutely malnourished children in the Horn. More than half a million will die if they do not get help within weeks.
However, displaying the facts, no matter how horrific, has become a useless endeavour. The public is numb. Figures in whatever digits do not shock, do not jolt. The bloated stomachs of emaciated children with exaggeratedly big hollow, deeply set eyes do not move people or open their wallets.
Drought and famine in already poorly Africa is not breaking news. They do not make for banner headlines. They are not what one would call appealing issues. The victims are faceless, unlucky people dealt a bad hand by the mercurial twists of fate. We might not apportion blame for their plight but we certainly do not help either.
For who is to come to the rescue? Bystanders from what appears to be another planet watching TV pictures of this gross inhumanity while wolfing down a double cheeseburger and slurping a cold, colourful milkshake? Doubtful.


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