As we look forward to Christmas the figures concerning famine emanating from Africa are stark. They serve as a damning indictment of our collective failure to address the needs of the most vulnerable at the beginning of a new millennium.
It is estimated that at least 28 million people will be affected by the current food shortages in the Horn of Africa and southern Africa. In Africa generally there are at least 38 million at risk and the figures seem to be increasing on a daily basis. Quite simply this is an unfolding disaster unprecedented in its scale and extent.
There are many reasons for the severity of the disaster but the shadow of the HIV/Aids pandemic is cast long over this famine. It has devastated the continent, undermined the coping strategies of individual families, communities and indeed entire countries. It has made the task of responding to food security issues immensely more difficult and complex. Shifting weather patterns, civil strife and matters relating to governance and economic policy have also had roles to play in the critical scenario we are now facing.
Horn of Africa
We became aware of the growing food shortages in the Horn of Africa in the middle of the year, when poor rains led to widespread livestock deaths and harvest failure across much of the region.
A joint UN and Ethiopian Government assessment report was published on 13 December. The Report found that the effects of drought exacerbated by chronic food insecurity threatens the lives of nearly 11.3 million Ethiopians. Over 1.4 million metric tonnes of food aid is required in 2003 to avert famine in Ethiopia.
In Eritrea the joint Government-UN appeal estimates that 2.3 million Eritreans, almost two-thirds of the population will need food assistance in 2003.
Sudan and Somalia continue to suffer from chronic food shortages. This situation is exaccerbated by conflict and general insecurity.
In Ethiopia high levels of malnutrition amongst children are now manifesting themselves. Some stress induced migration has occurred and desperate coping mechanisms such as the selling off of personal belongings to buy food is occurring where food assistance is not available.
The food situation in southern Africa remains critical. Some 14 million people remain at risk of starvation in Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe. The World Food Programme is feeding an additional 1.8 million people in Angola.
There are some indications that the situation will deteriorate early in the New Year as coping strategies are pushed to the absolute limit. This is when the traditional season of scarcity reaches its height. It has been reported that many people are already resorting to eating immature green maize and seeds.
I personally witnessed this unfolding southern African tragedy when I visited Malawi and Zambia in August of this year. More recently I sent a senior official to Zimbabwe to speak to missionaries and NGOs working on the ground in order to get a more accurate picture of the prevailing situation there. Our missions in Zambia, Lesotho and Mozambique are closely monitoring food shortages in those countries. The prognosis is not good. WFP/FAO estimates a four million tonne cereal shortfall of which about one million tonnes will be required for 14 million people as food aid.
Ireland Aid - What are we doing?
Ireland Aid responds in two ways to humanitarian crises such as the famines in Africa. In the short term it is imperative to save lives in the most effective way possible, through direct assistance and through using every opportunity to raise the issue internationally to ensure that the donor community adopts timely and coordinated humanitarian action. In the long term it is absolutely necessary to tackle the structural reasons that underlie food insecurity.
We have mounted a rapid and significant response to the problems in the Horn of Africa. On 18 November I invited a number of NGOs to discuss the immediate needs. Following this meeting I announced a special €2 million food assistance package for the people of Ethiopia. This has brought Irish Government assistance on emergency and humanitarian relief for the Horn of Africa to over €7 million this year. Funding has been allocated to key international agencies such as the UN World Food Programme as well as Irish and international NGOs and covers Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia and Sudan.
Three weeks ago I sent a mission to Ethiopia to coordinate the Irish Government's humanitarian operation with other donors, the United Nations and the NGO community. I will travel to Ethiopia in January to see the situation at first hand and to discuss the impact of the famine with the UN, NGOs, missionaries and the Ethiopian authorities. I will examine further assistance in the light of my discussions in Ethiopia.
In relation to southern Africa we have delivered €9 million in emergency assistance in 2002. During my visit to the region in August I witnessed at first hand the life-saving work of missionaries and NGO development workers as they sought to assist the most vulnerable. I am delighted that we are able to fund and assist their vital humanitarian work.
Our humanitarian support is complemented by political action. I have been working closely with our partners in the European Union and the United Nations to develop strategies on how immediate food needs can best be met at national and regional level. The scale of the problem is so large, and the situation has deteriorated so rapidly that we must have a major and coordinated response. Words can become devalued by constant repetition. However let me say to you here today that this famine is unprecedented and our response must also be unprecedented.
I have discussed the food crises in Africa with my British counterpart Clare Short at the General Affairs and External Relations Council on 19 November. The issue also topped the agenda in my discussions with the Deputy Executive Director of the World Food Programme, on 5 December. The alleviation of poverty in Africa was one of the central themes addressed by Ireland at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg last September. The Taoiseach highlighted the food security crises threatening Africa and the need for an urgent international response.
If we are to break the cyclical nature of famine and starvation in Africa the underlying structural problems affecting food production must be addressed. The reasons for what sometimes seem the never-ending food crises in Africa are complex. There are, of course, climatic reasons for sudden drops in food production. Too little rain, too much rain or changing patterns of rain can have deleterious effects on crop and food production.
However there are also structural reasons at the root of systemic food shortages. These include, inter alia, weak markets, poor transport, weak agricultural extension, traditional land tenure systems and poor resource management leading to land degradation. These crises must also, in my view, be perceived from a wider angle which examines the political and economic failures contributing to this catastrophe. Good governance leads to sound development and economic policies which in turn reduce poverty and can, slowly but surely, reduce exposure to the calamitous famines we are witnessing at this time.
As I mentioned earlier the HIV/Aids pandemic has also played a major role in the severity of the current food crisis in Africa. The pandemic has hugely undermined the ability of individuals, families, communities and countries to cope and survive food insecurity. The absence of sufficient food may also in itself expose individuals to coping mechanisms which expose them and their families to the risk of HIV infection.
Addressing famine and starvation in Africa will require a multi-disciplined approach with agriculture and rural development leading the way. It will require significantly increased resources from the donor community and equal commitments from African governments to build the enabling environments, which will facilitate agricultural growth, while protecting the poor and most vulnerable.
I am happy to note that a renewed commitment to agriculture has emerged from the Johannesburg Summit. Ireland Aid is renewing its focus on agriculture and rural development and is also funding vital poverty oriented agricultural research through the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).
Ireland Aid has strong development partnerships with 6 countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Through these partnerships Ireland Aid fully engages with the Governments and donors on the basis of Poverty Reduction Strategies. The Poverty Reduction Strategy Plans (PRSPs) demonstrate how each country prioritises resources and policies with the objective of reducing poverty. This comprehensive and African owned approach by donors, Governments and civil societies stands the best chance of reversing the downward spiral of economic and social indicators in sub-Saharan Africa.
One of the key goals of the Millennium Development Summit is to reduce by half the number of hungry people in the world by 2015. The current food crisis across the African continent has very seriously undermined our chances of attaining this goal. Yet there is still much optimism about the capacity of the planet to produce sufficient food to meet our needs. Appropriate agricultural policies and research have major roles to play in this regard. Markets are also important and the effects of globalisation and trade on food security merits more debate and discussion.
I have established a task force to examine ways in which Ireland Aid can stimulate greater productivity in agriculture through private sector mechanisms.
In conclusion let me say that Ireland has done and will continue to do its utmost to deliver effective assistance to those most in need in famine affected Africa. We will also use every occasion to highlight the issue internationally. Our humanitarian assistance is designed to seamlessly link into recovery and eventually longer term support. By this process we best assist efforts to address the fundamental causes of food insecurity, while at the same time meeting the basic needs of the poorest of the poor.