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Other voices, July 28, 2011

By The Globe and Mail, Toronto

The Horn of Africa is once again facing a devastating drought — the worst in 60 years. More than 10 million people are in urgent need of food, water and emergency health care. The United Nations is expected to declare a famine in parts of southern Somalia, where 3,500 refugees flee a day.

During the 1984-85 famine in Ethiopia and Eritrea, the West blamed the lack of an early warning system for the failure to prevent a tragedy that left 1 million dead.

Today, no such excuse exists. The international community has the benefit of a sophisticated early warning system. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has been sending out famine alerts for the region since last year, warning of the deteriorating situation, caused by drought, rising food prices and conflict. In March, the alerts grew more urgent: “Contingency planning should begin immediately.”

Yet these warnings went unheeded. Last year’s U.N. appeals for $500 million for food security in East Africa fell well short. Only one-fifth of the $22 billion pledged in 2009 by the G8 countries for agricultural aid has been disbursed — though Canada has given more than two-thirds of its pledges. What is the point of an early warning system if nobody is listening? Does the world really need to see images of children with swollen bellies in refugee camps, in order to keep past promises for food aid?

When an alarm of impending famine is sounded, the whole world should be galvanized into action. Why did this fail to happen? Surely the international community can do better than this.

The Globe and Mail, Toronto (July 21)

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