After earlier U.N. warnings, the dire realities of this emergency are now unfolding, with famine already declared in South Sudan and reports of death from malnutrition.
In mid-February 2017, Antonio Guterres, the UN Secretary General, announced that 20 million people were at risk from food shortages in Somalia, Yemen, Nigeria and South Sudan. At the same time, he reported that 1.4 million children were severely malnourished. Guterres pleaded for "strong and urgent" action from the international community and confirmed that aid of $4.4 million dollars was needed before the end of March to avert catastrophe.
After an assessment of the affected areas, U.N. Emergency Relief Coordinator Stephen O'Brien told the Security Council that
"... we are facing the largest humanitarian crisis since the creation of the UN."
The Age reported over the Easter weekend that the U.N. worldwide appeal for assistance is falling way short of the funds needed. So far, international donors have provided $984 million, or only a little over one-fifth of the required amount of aid. Declarations of famine in other countries seem imminent.
Although prolonged drought in the Horn of Africa is a major contributor to the emergency, civil unrest and armed conflict are also significant factors in each of the four countries. As is often the case, many of the citizens most vulnerable to the food crisis have been the victims of geographical displacement and general dispossession. It is precisely these less powerful family groups who will bear the greatest impact when shortages intensify.
U.N. Secretary-General Guterres is still hopeful that much death and suffering can be prevented with the right level of international aid and the provision of access to those most affected. Guterres gave his assurance that the U.N. has specific plans in place and the humanitarian staff ready to roll out the emergency assistance.
Secretary-General's Joint Press Conference on Humanitarian Crises in Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen, 22 February 2017 (via www.un.org)
Savage cuts to Australian foreign aid
The plight of East Africa is one further reminder of the inadequacy of Australian Government's foreign aid budget. In the now infamous Coalition Federal Budget of 2014, more than $7.6 billion in foreign aid expenditure was axed over a five year period. This reduction within such a relatively small policy portfolio represented 20% of total Budget savings. Dr Jeffrey Sachs, U.N. Special Advisor to the Millennium Development Goals project, condemned Australia for attempting to balance its books "off the back of the world's poor".
With these 2014 Budget cutbacks, Australia's foreign aid expenditure had fallen even further behind the contributions of the many other OECD countries, which, unlike Australia, had been hit hard by the Global Financial Crisis. Even the financially austere UK Government of David Cameron had achieved the U.N.'s 0.7% standard of gross national income for aid by 2013. Denmark, Luxembourg, Norway, Sweden and the United Arabic Emirates had also met or exceeded the 0.7% benchmark by 2013.
To make matters worse, the LNP Coalition made further cuts to foreign aid expenditure in the successive 2015-16 and 2016-17 budgets.
Robin Davies of the Crawford School of Public Policy at the ANU cites MYEFO December 2016 data to indicate that the Australian Government's contribution to foreign aid is now at a low 0.22% of GNI - a third less, in real terms, than in 2012-13.
Both of the major political parties have, in recent years, made international commitments to raise the overseas aid and development expenditure to the level of 0.5% of GNI, and both have subsequently abandoned these commitments.
It is interesting to note that, in the late 1960s, Australia's foreign aid allocation was at about 0.48% of national income under the governments of PMs Holt and Gorton. Yet Australians were much less wealthy then, 50 years ago, than they are today in terms of average per capita income. It is a disturbing fact that national foreign aid has diminished in its generosity while overall affluence has increased.
Any number of factors may have influenced this comparative downward trend in aid contributions. But the reality remains that Australia's per capita income, despite a slow-down recently, is sitting well above the average of the group of high-income countries of the OECD.
In the meantime, the people of East Africa wait.
All the major Australian overseas aid agencies are accepting donations for East Africa. To find out how you can help click HERE.
Michael Clanchy is a management and policy development consultant and has authored books including Good Bosses, Bad Bosses: Surviving at Work. Publishers of his feature articles include BRW, The Age, The Brisbane Courier Mail and The West Australian.
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