East Africa stands on the brink of a humanitarian disaster unlike any we've seen in the twenty-first century. The scale of this disaster is so large that it can be almost impossible to comprehend, so let's try to put what's happening into context.
First off, let's take a look at what a famine is. The United Nation's World Food Programme (WFP) declares a famine when acute malnutrition rates among children exceed 30%, more than two people per 10,000 die every day and when people are unable to access food and basic necessities. Acute malnutrition is not something most people in the Western world have ever seen, we tend to equate malnutrition with being hungry or a poor diet. In reality, acute malnutrition means something else entirely. A seven-month old child suffering from acute-malnutrition will weigh just 7lbs 8oz, or the same as a newborn baby. A two-year old child that is 2' 5" tall will weigh just 16lbs, or less than the weight of a large house cat.
Over 11 million people have been affected by this famine. That's the same number of people as the entire population of Rwanda (or the population of Ohio). Take a minute and think about how you would expect the international community to respond to a disaster affecting that many people. Around 18,000 people were killed in the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, while already 29,000 children have died in Somalia alone. Ten children a day are dying in just one refugee camp in Ethiopia. Now think about how many speeches you've heard in the last few months about what's going on in Ethiopia, Somalia, Uganda and Djibouti.
What's most shocking about this famine is that none of this is new. The drought that started this famine began in late 2010. In May 2011 the WFP was forced to cut the size of its rations by two thirds and was already struggling to feed just two thirds of people in need. This famine is so bad that people have been forced to walk for two-weeks in an attempt to reach safety in neighbouring Kenya, with around 1,500 people arriving in the refugee camp in Dadaab every day. Some parents have been forced to make the incomprehensible choice to leave their children behind to die on the side of the road.
Insecurity in Somalia is further exacerbating what is already a dire situation. There are reports of up to half of the aid in Mogadishu being stolen by opportunistic gangs, and families being forced to give back sacks of food shortly after their photos have been taken by international journalists. Somalia has effectively been without a government for two decades now, and so the response to this crisis is in the hands of aid organizations who are struggling to afford basic programmatic costs let alone deal with the security of refugee camps and food distribution points. Efforts are being further hampered by an outbreak of cholera in Mogadishu.
With over 1,200 members of staff on the ground, you'd expect the WFP to have this well under control, but in reality they face a budget shortfall of 40% - which means their programs could run out of food in just three weeks. Part of this is due to the lacklustre response to appeals for funding from the international community. Italy has contributed nothing, while Brazil has contributed more than France and Germany combined. Rising food prices make this budget shortfall even worse, as increased oil prices have almost doubled the price of basic staples like flour and rice. Journalists are doing their best to get this story out there, and as CNN's Anderson Cooper said, "I feel like this story should be a headline in every paper, on every newscast, every day while this is going on." But instead we're focusing on idiots rioting on the streets in England, phone-hacking scandals and how much President Obama's bulletproof bus costs. As of this morning, the front pages of CNN, the BBC and The Washington Post have no mention of Africa. At all.
I can understand that the war in Libya and the continuing economic crisis sell more newspapers, but from a purely utilitarian standpoint shouldn't we be trying to help the greatest number of people who are in the greatest need? If action isn't taken immediately a tipping point will be reached, at which point it will become a certainty rather than a possibility that hundreds of thousands of people will die of starvation. The magnitude of this situation must be brought to light now, because the prospect of dealing with our inaction in hindsight is too horrifying to imagine.
The WFP has a list of ten things you can do to help the Horn of Africa right now. Even if you can't afford to donate any money, talk to other people about what's going on. Somehow a disaster affecting 11 million people is being ignored and the longer it takes for policymakers to act, the more people will die. That isn't hard to understand at all.