UN's famine appeal falls on deaf ears

Of the 20 million who are at risk of famine, 1.4 million are children, and they are the most vulnerable.
Of the 20 million who are at risk of famine, 1.4 million are children, and they are the most vulnerable.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

It needs $6.2b by end-March but has raised only $592m

UNITED NATIONS • A month ago, the secretary-general of the United Nations (UN), Mr Antonio Guterres, warned that 20 million people would fall into famine if his aid agencies could not corral US$4.4 billion (S$6.2 billion) by the end of March.

It is almost the end of March, and so far, the UN has received less than one-tenth of the money - US$423 million (S$592 million), according to its Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

The funding appeal, and the paltry response, comes as the Trump administration is poised to make sharp cuts to its foreign aid budget, including for the UN.

Historically, the United States has been the agency's largest single donor for humanitarian aid.

For all four countries at risk - Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen - the United States has this year kicked in US$277 million, not all of it for famine relief.

The conditions for famine are specific and not easy to meet, which is why the last time a famine was declared was in Somalia in July 2011, after 260,000 died of hunger and related complications.

  • CRITERIA FOR DECLARING A FAMINE

  • 1 When one in five households in a certain area faces extreme food shortage.

    2 When more than 30 per cent of the population is acutely malnourished.

    3 When at least two people for every 10,000 die each day.

The three criteria for declaring a famine are: When one in five households in a certain area faces extreme food shortage; more than 30 per cent of the population is acutely malnourished; and at least two people for every 10,000 die each day.

A famine has been declared in a swath of South Sudan. A similar risk looms over Somalia, still reeling from years of conflict, and Yemen, where Houthi insurgents are battling a Saudi-led coalition supported by the United States and Britain.

In northern Nigeria, a famine could be under way, according to an early warning system funded by the US Agency for International Development. But the security situation is so bad there that aid workers have been unable to assess levels of hunger.

On Thursday, Somalia's newly elected President, Mr Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, better known by his nickname, Farmajo, told the Security Council by video link from Mogadishu that half the population of his country faces acute food shortages.

The UN says it needs US$4.4 billion to deliver food, clean water and basic medicine such as oral rehydration salts to avert diarrhoea deaths among children.

Of the 20 million who are at risk of famine, 1.4 million are children, and they are the most vulnerable.

To put the US$4.4 billion appeal in perspective, it is less than one-tenth of the US$54 billion increase that President Donald Trump is seeking for the US military budget.

Food insecurity can exacerbate conflict and prompt people to seek refuge in other countries.

The chief economist for the World Food Programme, Mr Arif Husain, said that in the world's war zones, a shortage of food is one of the most important factors driving people away from their home countries.

Meanwhile, the US warned South Sudan's government on Thursday that preventing humanitarian aid workers from reaching parts of the war-torn state that are suffering famine could "amount to deliberate starvation tactics".

The country recently raised work permit fees a hundredfold for foreign aid workers, to US$10,000.

"The famine is not a result of drought, it is the result of leaders more interested in political power and personal gain than in stopping violence and allowing humanitarian access," Deputy US Ambassador Michele Sison told the Security Council.

NYTIMES, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 25, 2017, with the headline 'UN's famine appeal falls on deaf ears'. Print Edition | Subscribe