In July of this year, two southern regions of Somalia were designated famine areas, with a further four designated since. The declaration of a famine is not to be taken likely. This is the first time in 25 years a famine has been declared in Africa – the world’s poorest continent. A famine is only declared when, among other factors, 30% of children are acutely malnourished and two in every 10,000 people or four in every 10,000 children die everyday.
400,000 young people are threatened with starvation in a humanitarian crisis that spawns Somalia, Kenya, Djibouti and Ethiopia in the Horn of Africa. 11 million people are in need of assistance with up to two and a half million displaced in Somalia alone – which has a population of 9.9 million people.
The Irish Government has been blowing its own trumpet in the Dáil over its response to the aid effort in the Horn of Africa. The Irish Government has so far donated €11 million to the aid appeal in East Africa, with a promise of a total of €20 million by the end of 2012. “This means that Ireland’s contribution is one of the most significant and generous responses to the crisis on a per capita basis”, Minister for State, Jan O’Sullivan, told the Dáil.
What the Government is less inclined to mention is the decrease in overall aid given since the recession began, although this has not been initiated by this Government. In 2008, Ireland’s overseas aid budget was €920 million. This dropped to €675 million by 2010. This is a drop from 0.59% of our GNP to 0.53% of GNP. Despite this, Minister for State Jan O’Sullivan has promised the Government will meets its target of 0.70% of GNP in overseas aid by 2015.
When contacted, an official in the Department of Foreign Affairs said the overseas aid budget would not be discussed, as it is a budgetary issue, which is now a matter for the Minister for Finance. It remains unclear whether the Government will further cut the overseas aid budget or increase it in line with its committal to reach 0.70% of GNP by 2015.
The overseas aid budget is used in the prevention of HIV/AIDs, to increas access to education, and for greater equality for women, among many other initatives. Aid is distributed to countries across Africa, as well as to Palestine, Vietnam and Timor Leste.
0.70% of GNP still remains a small figure, despite the economic hardship in Ireland. It will make a big difference, when one considers the hardship of those in other countries. For example, 80% of Somalis are illiterate, only 17% go to school and the average income is $500 (€371) per year. This compares to Ireland where school participation is compulsory, 99% of those over 15 years-old are literate and the average industrial wage is €32,000 per year.
Even from an Irish perspective, commitments to developing countries bring long-term advantages at home. The world population has hit seven billion, and this will continue to rise with Africa the fastest growing continent between now and 2100. Estimates of between 10-15 billion people on the planet by 2100 are predicted. It will be the lower end of the estimates provided the developing world economies develop, birth control and widespread education, particularly for women, are provided in developing countries. Less people using finite energy sources will only help Ireland’s future generations prosper. It is through Ireland’s overseas aid budget, which Ireland can influence this.
Critics of overseas aid to countries like Somalia may justifiably point out, that overseas aid goes to areas with dictatorial regimes and the aid may inadvertently prop up the regime in the country of the people it seeks to help.
Famine-stricken area in Somalia are under the rule of al-Shabab – a group designated by the American government as terrorists with links to al-Qaedi. As a result, under the Patriot Act, the American Government refuses to offer aid to southern Somalia, as it could fund terrorism.
French based charity organisation, Médecins San Frontiéres (Doctors Without Borders), has said aid agencies must be up front in admitting that aid simply won’t reach some of the most affected areas which al-Shabab control no matter how much money is given. A book soon to be released by Médicins San Frontiéres will also reveal how in 2009 they paid taxes to al-Shabab in order reach areas of humanitarian concern.
These difficulties are a problem for all agencies. “Maintaining access to needy areas is dependent on positive relations with all local authorities. This means not being critical to anyone, in order to continue the process of delivering aid. Being publicly critical of any party to the conflict, risks reducing humanitarian access even further than it already is now”, says Paul Dunphy of Oxfam Ireland
In spite of this, it is still clear the aid is reaching those even in the al-Shabab controlled famine areas. Three of the six designated famine areas were downgraded from famine status to emergency status on November 21st.
The ongoing problems in the Horn of Africa put a sense of perspective to our problems at home. Despite many of our difficulties, economic hardship remains an issue of life or death for few in Ireland, but many in the Horn of Africa. We all need to remember this, but particularly, our Government when it sits down to frame our next budget.