Wednesday March 8, 2006
More than 20 million people in the Horn of Africa are at risk of famine in conditions which the head of the World Food Programme (WFP) described yesterday as the worst in his experience.James Morris, executive director of the WFP, the UN’s food aid organisation, was in London yesterday to warn the international community that millions of people in Kenya, Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia and the Tanzania are now at risk because of drought
he rain cycle in the area has decreased steadily over the last decade, and the WFP is running out of food for 3.5 million Kenyans who need emergency assistance, he said, warning that the death toll would rise if sufficient funds were not forthcoming from donor countries. "These people have run out of food and water," he said of northeastern Kenya, which he has just visited. "Unless we reach them all very soon we will run out of time."
The recent Kenyan corruption scandals should not affect aid, he added. "We don’t do our work through governments, we do it through NGOs or do it ourselves … Children have nothing to do with corruption, they’re often the victims of it."
While all donations in the form of food and grain are welcome, Mr Morris said money from donors remains essential as it gives the WFP flexibility to buy locally. "We could eliminate hunger for children in Africa for £3bn," he said.
The director acknowledged that aid often only appears in times of catastrophe. "The whole world needs to do a better job on early-warning systems," he said. "The world never responds as quickly as would perfectly be the case."
One of the primary challenges, he said, is catching world attention. The film The Constant Gardener, for which actress Rachel Weisz just won an Oscar, helped create awareness of the problem and the WFP’s work. "People pay a heck of a lot more attention to her when she talks than they would to me," the director said. "She has been a very strong advocate for the work of the WFP but more importantly for issues of the world’s hungry poor."
Mr Morris said the film All the Invisible Children, seven vignettes on children under threat by directors including Ridley Scott, Emir Kusturica, John Woo and Spike Lee, also had had a major effect.
Donors tend to respond most swiftly when a crisis is covered by the media. "When the BBC shows the tough footage of children starving, the world responds," he said. "Those crises that get the most attention in the media have the best chance of being funded." While an estimated 25,000 people died of hunger every day, he said, "90% of them will not die in a high-profile situation."
One new development in the field was the signing of the world’s first insurance contract for humanitarian emergency with the AXA Re insurance company. Payment is triggered if rainfall is significantly below the average.
Half of the countries affected by hunger, he said, belong to the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, and one issue to be addressed is the role of these nations, from whom there is a shortage of donations. "We need more support from the Gulf region. They do much of their work on a bilateral basis, government-to-government. My own view is that humanitarian support is much more appropriately done through the international, multilateral institutions." Saudi Arabia has not yet donated in the current crisis, and while the WFP needs to raise 10% of its budget from the Middle East, he said currently less than 1% is forthcoming.
Somalia faces very serious logistical problems for food delivery both because of the insecurity in the country and in the wake of attacks by pirates on aid vessels. Mr Morris said nearly 1.5m Somalians are in need of emergency food aid but their situation is perilous because access is so difficult. "We urge leaders and rival militia to set aside their differences and guarantee safe passage to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe," he said.
The UK is among the most generous donors, he said. "[Secretary of state for international development] Hilary Benn has been remarkable in his personal commitment. He is the single most aggressive leader in the world trying to make the humanitarian community better."