Aid professionals would have you believe that tackling hunger is about feeding people. Take it from an industry insider – the truth is a lot more complex
Here we are again. Famine is back. Drought in Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya, and the Disasters Emergency Committee has launched an appeal for east Africa. We are being reminded there is one last chance to stop utter devastation in South Sudan. More and more horror reveals itself as areas are taken back from Boko Haram by the Nigerian army.
Outside Africa, across the Gulf of Aden, we are seeing the little bodies of children wasting away in Yemen.
Aid professionals like me have done a bad job of explaining the reasons behind fragility and crisis.
We need to be more honest about how complex these phenomena are, and not oversimplify what we do. That means when we talk about hunger crises we shouldn’t just ask you to help feed the starving – though that is desperately needed. We should also talk about conflict.
Only if we understand conflict can we understand hunger. South Sudan is another example. I worked there for two years following the signing of the comprehensive peace agreement in 2005. Right now a place called Koch, where Mercy Corps works, is in what the famine early warning systems network calls a “level 4 emergency phase”.
This means that people will start to die of hunger in a matter of months if they don’t receive enough aid. Until recent years, Koch was a thriving community with fertile land. It has been destroyed in armed clashes since conflict broke out in South Sudan in December 2013. Families have had to move time and time again and disease is rampant due to the lack of clean water. As one father of five told our team in Koch: “My house was burnt, everything was looted and I do not know how to rebuild my life.”
Across the places where we work and where people are facing starvation, the pattern is the similar.
Hunger is not some freak environmental event; it is human-made, the result of a deadly mix of conflict, marginalisation and weak governance.
Yet watching some of the news and the crisis appeals, one could be forgiven for thinking that what we need is another Live Aid song and airdrops of food. Red Nose Day has been criticised for portraying Africa as a place where “nothing ever grows”.
A recent social media campaign to send a plane filled with food to Somalia gathered support: a noble gesture, but not a long-term solution. Mercy Corps’ own emergency response is not the long-term answer either.
Our team is working in 40C heat, in areas only accessible by helicopter, to repair boreholes and to provide hygiene supplies and health information – trying to prevent the spread of cholera that would devastate communities already weakened by hunger. This work is vital and it saves lives, but it addresses the symptoms, not the causes.
Simon O’Connell of Mercy Corps, left, with Syrian refugees at Katsikas camp in Ioannina, Greece. Photograph: Sara Hylton/Mercy Corps
In South Sudan, as in Somalia, Nigeria and Yemen, it is not a lack of food that creates famine. Crises exist because of violence and conflict. They don’t need more food, they need investment into conflict prevention and the stability that brings.
Of course, that is easier said than done. Addressing the root causes of conflict and building resilience to crisis is difficult and complicated. But organisations like Mercy Corps are constantly developing better ways to promote peace-building and conflict prevention, particularly at community level. We need these long-term, complex approaches to be supported, because they may mean we do not need another famine appeal. We also need people to understand that we are trying to address the underlying causes.
I am not for a moment suggesting we shouldn’t support crisis appeals. Once a community is in the grip of famine it needs assistance, and fast. These responses save lives. But unless we take time to understand and support long-term approaches like conflict prevention and peace-building, we will continue to find ourselves wrestling with protracted crises, forced migration, and the associated security issues that affect everyone of us.