We are now one week into the first famine in the world since 1984.  About 11 million people are at risk in the Horn of Africa and the UN expects that this number will grow during the month of August, with famine conditions spreading beyond southern Somalia to elsewhere in the region.

Families are pouring into already over-crowded refugee camps at the rate of about 1,000 new entrants a day. Some people have walked for weeks just to reach the relative safety of sprawling refugee camps over the border in Ethiopia and Kenya.

So what now? The Rome based UN Food and Agriculture Organization convened a meeting at the behest of France (which currently presides over the G-20) to organize a collective response the crisis. The meeting was intended to be a ministerial level meeting, and the French Agriculture minister presided. Several other ministers attended, but the the United States was represented by its Ambassador to Italy.  That relatively low-level representation (as opposed to say, a USA delegation lead by USAID administrator Raj Shah or Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack) is symbolically disappointing. (To be fair, the United States is the nonetheless the largest donor to the Horn of Africa crisis.)

The crisis remains underfunded. According to Relief Web, out of the $1.87 billion in humanitarian requirements for Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia, more than $1.1 billion has been committed, but a shortfall of $850 million remains.

That shortfall existed before the famine was declared. There will be a pledging conference in Nairobi later today which hopes to raise $1.6 billion to pay for the emergency response.

In the meantime, UN humanitarian agencies and international NGOs are kicking into gear.  UNICEF announced plans to “deliver unprecedented supplies of therapeutic and supplementary foods across the Horn.” That includes:

Insecticide-treated mosquito nets to prevent malaria and essential medicines including vaccines are being airlifted to support massive vaccination campaigns that will be conducted over the coming weeks to prevent the outbreak of disease. To expand provision of safe water and access to sanitation, boreholes will be drilled and rehabilitated; water trucking and hygiene activities will be expanded.

The World Food Program has begun a massive humanitarian airlift.  The UN Refugee Agency is rapidly expanding camps in Kenya and Ethiopia, and registering thousands of new refugees every day.

 

These activities cost money. UNICEF says it requires $100 million over the next 6 months to fully fund its response.  These organizations need cash to do things like pay fuel costs for airlifts and shipments; buy tents and tarps for refugee centers; medicines and plumpynut and vaccines for newborns; and hire people on the ground to load and unload these shipments. This is relatively mundane work, but it requires cash on hand.

It is unconscionable that in 2011 we are experiencing a famine.  Let’s hope that donors step up at today’s pledging conference in Nairobi and provide these organizations the funding they require to keep people alive and healthy.

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