07/20/2012 07:43 EDT | Updated 09/19/2012 05:12 EDT

Africa's Famine Turns One -- But Where is the West?

A year ago today famine was declared in the Horn of Africa. The worst drought in 60 years put millions of lives at risk. Canadians stepped up and donated $70 million, which the government matched.

Now it is one year later -- where do things stand today?


While the famine has been declared over, eight million people in Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia still need emergency assistance. Meanwhile, in the Sahel region of West and Central Africa, another drought is affecting the lives of millions more. Last December UNICEF warned one million children in the region were at risk of severe malnutrition. Resources are desperately still needed to make sure these children and their families survive.

This chain of disasters seems endless, and many people, from the comfort of our middle-class living rooms, ask what is the point of helping when we have spent so much money already -- especially when we are in another recession?

Well, here are three good reasons to help:

1. Humanitarian responses save lives

The massive global response and the coordinated efforts of the world's finest agencies -- UNICEF, MSF, Save the Children, CARE and others -- saved countless lives. A million children were treated for malnutrition. Vaccination programs around the region protected almost 10 million children. Feeding programs kept thousands of families alive. Water was trucked in and bore-holes dug. Child-friendly spaces helped traumatized children keep a sense of normality as they were nursed back to health.

2. Long-term development makes a real difference

This was the worst drought in the Horn of Africa since World War Two. Yet the famine was not as bad as the last famine 25 years ago. Yes, the situation in Ethiopia was dire, but it never reached famine levels. Why? Community development programs since that last great famine of the 1980s successfully built local skills and resilience to create a health system and a social safety net. These are not as strong as one would like, but they exist, and they made a life-or-death difference for many. The government of Ethiopia and UNICEF developed a system of community clinics which have brought community health workers and primary health care close to the villagers who need it most.

In 2008 the Ethiopian health system could treat 50,000 malnourished children a month. Now it can treat 300,000 a month. Community welfare committees ensure the most vulnerable receive assistance. This is community development working well -- these long, unglamorous efforts far away from the media spotlight meant the drought in Ethiopia did not result in famine.

3. We can afford it

We have enough money to help. That became clear during the financial crisis of 2008. Within months, elected leaders around the world began a bailout of financial institutions which, when you add together all the countries in the world -- reached about $4 trillion.

That is more than $500 for every person on the planet. That is 36 times as much money as is spent in foreign aid every year. It is also 400 times more than the World Food Program received when they appealed for more food aid at the same time as the 2008 meltdown. Clearly, when we choose to act and spend money, we can.

The cameras and the media have left the Horn of Africa. While the famine was averted, the gains are fragile indeed. But the partnership between caring people around the world and resilient people in the Horn of Africa has saved countless lives and is building fragile foundations of hope -- we can afford to help, so let's not turn away now.


Famine, Horn of Africa

*All photos are copyright of UNICEF 2012