09/14/2011 09:57 EDT | Updated 01/12/2012 02:18 EST

East Africa famine fund deadline nears

Canadians were urged Wednesday to make "one last push" and give to East Africa famine relief before the federal government's offer to match donations expires on Friday.

International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda and representatives from the Humanitarian Coalition made the appeal for donations at a news conference on Parliament Hill. They said more than 13 million people are being affected by the ongoing drought and famine in the Horn of Africa with lives being lost every day, people scrambling to survive by fleeing their homes in search of food and seeking help in overcrowded refugee camps.

Robert Fox, executive director of Oxfam Canada, said the humanitarian crisis in Somalia and its neighbouring countries grew more acute over the summer and that aid agencies working in the refugee camps providing food, water, education, health services and other assistance want to scale up their efforts and save even more lives.

His group and the other four aid agencies that make up the Humanitarian Coalition have raised more than $10 million from Canadians. Fox congratulated Canadians for their genorosity and asked them to keep giving.

"For those of you who have donated, we thank you for your contribution. For those of you who have not, we encourage you to make that contribution and even some of you who have donated, we encourage you to think yet again whether you can give us more, given the severity of the situation," he said.

Fox urged people to give before Friday so that donations can be maximized by the federal government's matching program.

The government started the East Africa Drought Relief Fund 10 weeks ago and pledged to donate one dollar for every dollar a Canadian gives to a registered charity that is providing assistance in the drought-ravaged countries. The matching period ends at midnight on Friday.

Oda joined in the call for Canadians to keep opening their wallets, and described the devastation she saw first-hand at the sprawling refugee camp in Dadaab, Kenya when she travelled there in July.

"This is a crisis that calls upon the best that Canada has to offer as a compassionate and humane country," said Oda. "Today I urge all Canadians to make one last push and donate to registered Canadian charities responding to the drought in East Africa," she said.

Oda said in total Canadians have donated more than $35 million as of the first week of September. The government will announce the final tally of donations once the deadline has passed and the information is collected. The deadline will not be extended because the government wants to start doling out the money quickly and get it flowing to the aid groups on the ground, she said.

The federal government has committed $72 million to the region already and the eventual amount of the East Africa Drought Relief Fund will be on top of that contribution. The fund will be split up among organizations that the Canadian International Development Agency decides are best-suited to deliver aid on the ground.

The minister acknowledged the reports of some aid being diverted and not reaching the people who need it. "This shouldn't mean that we as Canadians don't help. It means we have to be more diligent in how aid is distributed and reaches the women and children," she said.

Oda said she can assure Canadians that "every effort" is being made to ensure their donations will reach those in need and that CIDA is very careful when it decides what projects to fund.

Patricia Erb, president and CEO of Save the Children, just returned from the Dadaab camp on Monday and said she heard tragic stories from people who had walked for days and in dangerous conditions to reach it.

It was an overwhelming experience but she left with some hope because the aid agencies there are co-operating well and making a difference, said Erb.

"The numbers in the camp are slightly going down. That means that some of the assistance that is being offered in the communities is working," she said. There is still no rain, however, and the numbers could go back up.

"We urge, in the last two days that have the maximizing effort of a matching fund, for all Canadians to give," she said. Canadians have been generous but, "we need to do more," Erb said.