08/02/2011 10:38 EDT | Updated 08/02/2011 10:38 EDT

Africa Needs Our Help to Overcome its Latest Famine


Chronic hunger is a fact of life for about one billion people around the world -- but those in the Horn of Africa who are in the midst of a famine are facing hunger and malnutrition on a scale few of us in the developed world can comprehend. Even so, I've been dismayed by web-chatter to the effect of, "How long can we be expected to keep feeding these Africans who don't seem to be able to fend for themselves?"

From my perspective, the fact that it has been decades since we've seen famine on this scale is an indicator of progress being made in tackling the challenges of food security. It's still a major issue, but much is being done to manage it. Now, a combination of factors has overwhelmed local resources.

Droughts, that could be weathered when they happened every five or so years, are now recurring every second year. Land and water reserves have not had time to recover and build up. Pasture land for cattle and goats is becoming scarce and livestock are dying. Once-arable land is becoming desert. Add to that another big global spike in food prices and conflict in southern Somalia and the population was pushed from increasing food insecurity into outright famine. Help from outside is essential to survival.

Plan has been assisting leaders around the world to address systemic issues of cyclical drought. We've been part of introducing more drought-resistant crops and improved farming techniques. We've drilled deeper, better water holes. We've helped design and implement microfinance schemes for agricultural workers, as well as grain banks to help populations make it through the "hungry season" until the next crops come in. We provide school-meal programs that ensure children get proper nutrition in the early years -- so critical to their ability as adults to earn a decent livelihood.

The UN officially declares a famine when it calculates that acute malnutrition rates among children exceed 30 per cent and more than two people out of every 10,000 are dying every day.

The reality on the ground is much less clinical -- and generally much worse -- than this tidy definition would suggest. The tracking of malnourished children and deaths is largely confined to the camps into which refugees are now streaming by the thousands in search of food. Many thousands more are not reflected in estimations of the scale of the tragedy because they are still on the move, migrating across the Horn of Africa. A sickening number will not survive the journey.

Just as when a town in North America is declared a "disaster zone" following a tornado or a flood, this label shines a public spotlight on extraordinary, urgent needs and mobilizes emergency funds from beyond local borders. Now that the world is paying attention to the African famine, my hope is that people will see the need for what it is -- a massive humanitarian crisis that must be addressed now, and a call for greater long-term investment in securing sustainable food supplies for populations most vulnerable to the effects of climate change and rising global food prices. I'm proud of the leadership the Government of Canada showed last week in committing an additional $50 million to start to close the estimated $800-million emergency funding gap. International Cooperation Minister Bev Oda also announced a retroactive fund to match every donation, big and small, that Canadians make to the effort between July 6 and Sept. 16.

To learn more about this commitment, you can visit the CIDA website. For more on Plan's response to the drought crisis, please visit the Plan Canada website.