Answering the call

  • September 20, 2011

For many months the Horn of Africa has been desperate for life-saving rain but, now that rain seems imminent, it is dreaded.

The autumn downpours that may help next year’s harvest will first bring fall flooding, cholera, malaria, typhoid and other disease to tens of thousands of starving people wandering the countryside or crammed into squalid camps. Perhaps the only place on Earth worse than Somalia today will be Somalia tomorrow.

Untold thousands, mainly women and children, have already died in East Africa’s famine and the United Nations is forecasting 13 million perilously underfed people and 750,000 deaths before the grave-digging is done. An urgent UN appeal for $2.5 billion in international aid has been muffled by the noise of European debt problems and the possibility of another world recession. The UN is still $1 billion short of its fund-raising goal.

Some of that shortfall is attributed to nations pocketing their chequebooks while the militant al-Shabaab Islamists are blocking aid delivery or corrupt government and army officials are plundering aid packages. Yet, weighed against the certain deaths of so many, that excuse is feeble. The militants make delivery of aid more difficult but hardly impossible.

None of the shortfall, however, can be attributed to Canadians. Like a year ago when $200 million was raised for Haitian relief, Canada once again is punching above its weight in the ring of international aid. Individual and government donations stand at some $150 million, about 10 per cent of the world total collected to date.

Although the federal government’s overall commitment to international development is diminishing, it deserves credit for acting swiftly and appropriately on this file. Following an initial pledge of $72 million, Ottawa launched a matching-funds program to encourage individual donations. That program ended on Sept. 16 with about $40 million collected, which the government will now match.

That figure is a tribute to Canadian generosity, a responsive government and a domestic charity apparatus that can mobilize quickly in a crisis. Based on economy size, Canada’s expected share of contributions would be about four per cent of the total. Based on population, it would be less. So Canadians have done more than their share.

But donating to famine relief is only a partial answer to East Africa’s problems. Famine is a symptom of much larger problem. Somalia in particular needs a guiding hand to create a functioning modern state. It needs a new constitution, judiciary, security and a corruption-free, democratic government so that, when drought strikes again, as inevitably it will, Somalia can cope.

The immediate aid effort must continue, but as a prelude to a broader plan of action. Canada should join with other Western nations to provide the expertise and leadership East Africa urgently requires to put it on a path to self-sufficiency.

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