Listen: Paul O’Callaghan, Caritas Australia CEO, on the humanitarian crisis gripping East Africa.
Above: Ruth Tabu is living in Bidi Bidi refugee camp in northern Uganda. Image credit: Trocaire
If all you read of this article is the first paragraph, please take in this one fact: right now, 23 million men, women and children are on the brink of starvation.
Yes, 23 million. That’s equal to the population of Australia.
It’s one of the biggest humanitarian crises since the World War II. Some say it could become worse than the 1984 famine in Ethiopia; the one that killed up to 600,000 people.
This is an international catastrophe—but we’re not hearing about it.
Probably because it’s in Africa and the Middle East – gripping countries like Kenya, Sudan, South Sudan, Somalia, Yemen and Malawi. And for our ethno-centric media, there are too many political dramas in white, Western places like the USA, UK and Europe, pushing this crisis to the bottom of the agenda.
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Human Suffering Up Close
We sat down with Paul O’Callaghan, CEO of the Catholic aid organisation Caritas, to hear about his recent visit to Kitui in eastern Kenya, where he saw first-hand the effects of prolonged drought.
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“It’s on a scale which really is extraordinary,” he said.
“Wherever you travel throughout that region, you’ll notice that all of the crops are wilted. There’s nothing that’s grown properly. It’s clear that there’s simply no water. You see all these signs of a farming community in true crisis. Livestock have died in their hundreds of thousands.”
Sadly, as with previous famines, drought is not the only culprit; political injustice is also at work. The Council of Churches in famine-gripped South Sudan, says this disaster is “man-made”, caused by internal warring and poor economic management.
Children Who May Not Survive The Year
It was while Paul was visiting a rural health clinic in Kenya that O’Callaghan came closest to the drought’s heart-wrenching impact.
“All of the children that I saw in that clinic…were stunted,” he said. “A four year old child looks like a two and a half year old child. They haven’t grown physically, because these children for the last several years haven’t had sufficient nutrition.
“I witnessed very young children who were extremely weak, very thin and many of whom won’t live until Christmas this year.”
“One of the mothers of seven kids just said to me, ‘What we’re doing now to adapt is we’re having, as a family, one small meal every second day—and we hope that we can find our way through so that the young ones survive.”
The ‘Deafening Silence’ of the Media
While he was trying to process the human tragedy unfolding before his eyes in Kenya, O’Callaghan still had access to the internet and his regular news feeds.
It was jarring to notice the Western media’s near-dismissal of the world’s biggest human crisis.
He describes it as a “deafening silence”.
“If these 23 million starving people were in France, the USA, Canada or England, it would be entirely different.”
“There’s almost no reference to this at all,” he said. “Our public broadcaster has been pretty active but apart from that, it’s as though this is simply not an issue. I think the fascination with issues to do with the president of the United States, with North Korea, the French elections, all these other factors – as well as our own budget and domestic set of issues – has distracted attention.”
In 2010, a famine in Somalia killed a quarter of a million people, and the conditions there now are starting to look much the same. In South Sudan, famine has already been declared. Yet these things aren’t reaching our headlines.
“Nobody in Australia really knows about this apart from people who work in this particular field,” O’Callaghan said. “If these 23 million starving people were in France or in some part of the United States or Canada or England, it would be entirely different.”
International Aid is Not Enough
The Australian federal government is providing some humanitarian relief, but it’s nowhere near enough.
“The United Nations Secretary General asked last month for much greater financial support from wealthy countries to assist in a response—and overall the response was very low,” O’Callaghan said.
When this year’s federal budget was announced, Caritas expressed its deep disappointment in the overseas aid figures, slashed for the fourth year in a row. That’s another $303.3 million being denied from those most in need.
We Can Make a Difference
The good news, though, is that organizations like Caritas and others, with strong networks already in place on the ground in Africa, are rolling up their sleeves and making a difference.
“Those people know how to operate, they know where to buy food, where to do things, how to get things done.”
Caritas, which is currently running an Africa Emergency Appeal, has its roots in the Catholic Church, which gives it the ability to operate in 190 countries. It has more than half a million staff, and 30 million volunteers. The local branches of Caritas in Africa have dealt with crises like this before and know just what to do.
“Those people know how to operate, they know where to buy food, where to do things, how to get things done, without the sort of response that sometimes happens with foreigners flying in to do it,” Paul explained.
“There are many organizations which are working on the ground in these countries with local partner agencies. For anybody who’s thinking of making a donation…they are the ones [organisations] that will be the most effective.”
How to Help
To support the work of Caritas in Africa, head to their Africa Emergency Appeal page.