Imagine your child is starving to death. That's what I keep thinking to myself when I see news reports about the drought and resulting famine engulfing east Africa right now. Imagine not being able to feed your own baby. Imagine walking for days in soaring temperatures to try to get help. And if you reach aid and even if, somehow, your children survive, imagine living in the limbo of a refugee camp, with little hope of returning home and little idea of what the future holds.
That's the reality now facing millions of people in Somalia and surrounding countries including Ethiopia, Kenya, Djibouti and Eritrea – 12 million according to the United Nations. Tens of thousands in Somalia, where the UN has officially declared a famine, have already died. Those who are able to have packed up their belongings and begun the long walk to the capital Mogadishu, neighbouring Kenya or Ethiopia in the hope of finding water and food. Refugee camps are already becoming overwhelmed.
The famine is, in part, the result of the worst drought to hit Somalia in 60 years, which has led to poor harvests. But it's also a side effect of the chaos and instability caused by conflict between the weak UN-backed government and Islamist al-Shabab fighters, who have been accused of preventing humanitarian aid from reaching the needy. Even before the drought, many people were forced to abandon the areas where they lived and farmed to escape the fighting. This led to a drop in food production, and in turn to a rise in food prices.
When we think about famine in Africa, it's very easy to descend into cliché and very hard to put ourselves in the position of those who suffer: to see their suffering as equal to our own. But to lose a child or a parent, a partner or a sibling is no less painful because it is happening all around. And to have to leave one's home and livelihood in order to depend on handouts is no less humiliating and debilitating because it's the only way to survive.
The knee-jerk response is to want to give. That's certainly what the UN and celebrity aid advocates like Bob Geldof have appealed to Western nations to do. Faced with such suffering it's a logical human response: a small amount of money could save many lives.
But does aid solve anything long-term? Famine doesn't have a simple cause: yes, it's partly the result of natural forces like drought. But it is conflict, instability, weak governance, inadequate infrastructure and systemic global inequality (with its roots in the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade) that prevents nations from being able to stop a predictable lack of rainfall becoming a humanitarian catastrophe.
In many ways, aid has only exacerbated these problems. As the veteran journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski has written, international aid is a source of inexhaustible profit for the warlords who foment conflict and sow tribal and racial hatred across Africa. Aid breeds corruption, destabilises governments and undermines the domestic economy.
In her book Dead Aid, the Zambian-born economist Dambisa Moyo argues that the $1trillion given in "systemic" aid to Africa over the last 50 years has actually lowered rather than increased economic growth on the continent. She is not talking about emergency or humanitarian aid, or even the kind of giving that supports grassroots work, but about official government-to-government aid, like the kind the British government has declared its continued commitment to.
As far as Africa is concerned, she describes aid as "an unmitigated political, economic and humanitarian disaster" and says it is trade and sound economic policies and investment that will make Africa an equal player. These are long-term, complex solutions that won't be easily conveyed by celebrity-endorsed rock concerts or fashion columnists dispatched to the Horn of Africa (can anyone think of a less appropriate journalist to cover a famine than Liz Jones?). But from where I'm sitting, it's hard to disagree.
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