Category Archives: Refugee Food Crisis

The Age of Disaster Overload

Sam Jones has an excellent – even essential – read in The Guardian on how the recent confluence of major disasters is kicking the humanitarian sector’s butt up one side of fundraising street and down the other.

The monetary citation:

“We’ve said, on the record, that the two humanitarian conditions for a DEC appeal [for South Sudan] have already been met: the scale and the extent of the need are more than sufficiently serious to justify an appeal,” says [Brendan] Paddy, [head of communications at the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC)] “And although access clearly is challenging because of the conflict, there is sufficient access for members to be able to do a great deal more if they had the resources.”

And yet a South Sudan appeal from the DEC is not imminent; conspicuous by their absence are the two interlinked factors on which the success of any appeal rests: public awareness and lasting media coverage.

Paddy says: “It’s the nature of slowly developing food crises, whether caused by conflicts or natural events, that until they reach their most extreme peak, perhaps with the declaration of a famine, it’s often very difficult for the media to justify high levels of sustained coverage over a period of days and weeks, which is really a necessary precondition for us to launch a successful appeal.”

And although the DEC feels “very torn”, Paddy adds, it simply cannot launch an appeal that is unlikely to pull in money.

Sobering as it all is, Jones is missing an essential dimension to the crisis: it’s not just the way all these Brand Name Emergencies find themselves squabbling over the same, limited pool of donor funds; it’s the way they collectively drive the non-emergency disasters off into the communicational void.

I’m thinking Chad here. And places like Cameroon, and Western Algeria, and Kyrgyzstan, and the literally four dozen other places where an agency like the WFP responds to chronic hunger situations that are, by their very chronic-ness, not even “emergencies” in the usual sense of the word.

If DEC can’t run an emergency appeal on South Sudan, where the UN Security Council just held a joint session, what imaginable hope is there for Niger?

Invisible People

Howard French once noted that,  “as a matter of convention, we constantly say and write things about Africa that would be unimaginable with any other continent.”

Just imagine the scale of the international media storm that would’ve ensued if the UN Refugee Agency had put out a press release warning that:

…funding difficulties, compounded by security and logistical problems, have forced cuts in food rations for nearly 800,000 refugees in Europe, threatening to worsen unacceptable levels of acute malnutrition, stunting and anaemia, particularly in children.

But, of course, this UNHCR/WFP Urgent Appeal wasn’t for refugees in Europe.

It was for Africa.

And so newspaper editors near and far felt perfectly at ease passing over the story or picking out 65 words of it to run in World Briefs section on page B17.

The story barely made a ripple.

We’re not dealing with anonymous people starving out in the bush. We’re dealing with people whose names have been registered by the United Nations, people living in camps donors set up and run. Camps we set up and run.

I guess people who’ve been around the Humanitarian enterprise longer than me will roll their eyes at my surprise. But I’ve been genuinely shocked at the total news void that the UNHCR’s July 1st Urgent Appeal fell into.

I tended to just assume that there were structures in place to prevent large numbers of people already under UN protection from just slowly starving. I had a vague sense that large, professional bureaucracies were in charge of these matters and someone somewhere would do something before you got to the stage of cutting off additional food deliveries to pregnant women and breastfeeding moms. I just took it for granted that the right alarm bells would go off in the right switchboard and find the right official response.

Obviously, I’m pretty green on these issues.

Still, the monstrous conundrum remains: how can something like this happen?

William Vollmann writes beautifully about “invisibility” as one of the defining features of poverty. Poor people can go missing or die without anyone noticing. That’s part of what it means to be poor.

Combine that with French’s insight up top and you start to grasp why an almost complete cloak of invisibility has fallen over African refugees.

It doesn’t seem to matter at all that we’re talking about people living under “international protection”. It doesn’t shift the needle that the refugee camps where they live were designed by bureaucrats in Geneva and paid for by donor countries. None of that seems to help.

And I suppose that’s the part that’s really shaken me about this story.

I can just about understand how a story about a famine in Africa gets tuned out of first world opinion. Famines are usually set off by wars together with droughts, they affect people who are widely dispersed, hard to reach, anonymous, remote. I’m not happy that so many people see famine as “one of those things that can’t be helped”, but I can understand it: the entire question is remote and vexing and depressing and it’s not entirely obvious how worrying about it would make anything better.

But what’s happening in Central Africa right now isn’t nothing like that.

We’re not dealing with anonymous people starving out in the bush. We’re dealing with people whose names have been registered by the United Nations, people living in camps donors set up and run. Camps we set up and run.

We’re dealing with enormous suffering generated not by war or drought but by Donor Fatigue, that ghastly euphemism for the international community’s inability to find relatively small sums of money to make good on its clear obligation to protect victims of conflict.

In Central Africa, the world is facing something I’ve never even heard of before: a kind of slow-burn famine inside U.N. facilities.

And nobody cares.

Listen, if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years it’s that development questions are hard. The processes involved are complicated and slow and subject to reversals and there’s a decent argument to be made that outsiders can’t understand how they happen and end up hindering them as often as they help.

Some humanitarian questions, on the other hand, are easy. And this is one of them. There isn’t any great conceptual difficulty here. There’s just a question of willingness and moral clarity and determination. You can’t allow 450,000 people under your care to starve in camps you built for them. It’s really pretty simple.

Darfur Chart 2.005Anyway, I don’t feel able to just ignore this issue. It feels indecent to do one post and move on. There’s a time for analysis, and there’s a time for advocacy. This is a time for advocacy. 

Launching the 850 Calorie Challenge

Earlier this month, the UNHCR announced it was running out of money for refugees in Africa.

The solution?

Cut refugee camp food rations, in some cases, to just 850 calories per day.

Think about what that means.

I guess every advocacy person has one: that one news item that was just…intolerable.

This one was mine.

It’s simply shocking how little play this story is getting in the press. Intolerable.

So today I’m launching The 850 Calorie Challenge.

The site does what it says on the tin: it challenges you to live on African refugee rations. Even just for one day. Or three.

Or a week.

And then write about it. Tweet about it. Facebook it. Spread the word.

There are hard questions in the development world. This isn’t one of them.