A few days ago, on 10 March, Stephen O’Brien, the United Nations Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs reported to the UN Security Council on the largest humanitarian crisis facing humanity since 1945. Many global challenges vie for our attention, but this one is of such enormity and urgency that it should surely be the headline on every news bulletin and at the top of every media agenda day after day. The question ‘what are we doing about it?’ should surely be the first thing we ask all our leaders at every opportunity…and keep asking until we are confident that everything is being done that can be done.
Reporting on countries facing famine or at risk of famine: Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia, Northern Kenya and North Eastern Nigeria, the Under-Secretary General said:
“We stand at a critical point in history. Already at the beginning of the year we are facing the largest humanitarian crisis since the creation of the United Nations. Now, more than 20 million people across four countries face starvation and famine. Without collective and coordinated global efforts, people will simply starve to death. Many more will suffer and die from disease. Children stunted and out of school. Livelihoods, futures and hope will be lost. Communities’ resilience rapidly wilting away. Development gains reversed. Many will be displaced and will continue to move in search for survival, creating ever more instability across entire regions. The warning call and appeal for action by the Secretary-General can thus not be understated. It was right to take the risk and sound the alarm early, not wait for the pictures of emaciated dying children or the world’s TV screens to mobilise a reaction and the funds.”
He was referring to the fact that in Yemen, 18.8 million need assistance and more than 7 million are hungry and do not know where their next meal will come from. In Kenya, 2.7 million people are now food insecure, a number likely to reach 4 million by April. In South Sudan the man-made famine is worse than it has ever been; over 7.5 million people need assistance, 3.4 million people are displaced and more than 1 million children are estimated to be acutely malnourished across the country; including 270,000 children who face the imminent risk of death should they not be reached in time with assistance and the cholera outbreak that began in June 2016 has spread to more locations. In Somalia, 6.2 million people need humanitarian and protection assistance, including 2.9 million who are at risk of famine and require immediate assistance to save or sustain their lives, close to 1 million children under the age of 5 will be acutely malnourished this year. In the last two months alone, nearly 160,000 people have been displaced due to severe drought conditions, adding to the already 1.1 million people who live in appalling conditions around the country. In North-Eastern Nigeria and the Lake Chad region. 10.7 million people need humanitarian assistance and protection, including 7.1 million people who are severely food insecure.
Much is already being done:
“The UN and humanitarian partners are responding. We have strategic, coordinated and prioritised plans in every country. We have the right leadership and heroic, dedicated teams on the ground. We are working hand-in-hand with development partners to marry the immediate life-saving with longer term sustainable development. We are ready to scale up. This is frankly not the time to ask for more detail or use that postponing phrase, what would you prioritize? Every life on the edge of famine and death is equally worth saving.”
But much more needs to be done, the international community needs:
- to tackle the precipitating factors of famine; preserving and restoring normal access to food and ensuring compliance with international humanitarian law.
- to provide sufficient and timely financial support, humanitarians can still help to prevent the worst-case scenario. To do this, we require safe, full and unimpeded access to people in need. Parties to the conflict must respect this fundamental tenet of international humanitarian law and those with influence over the parties must exert that influence now.
- to stop the fighting. To continue on the path of war and military conquest is to guarantee failure, humiliation and moral turpitude and the responsibility for the millions who face hunger and deprivation on an incalculable scale because of it.
The warning couldn’t be clearer, this is not some unavoidable natural disaster:
“All these countries have one thing in common: conflict. This means we have the possibility to prevent, and end, further misery and suffering. The UN and its partners are ready to scale up. But we need the access and the funds to do more. It is all preventable. It is possible to avert this crisis, to avert these famines, to avert these looming human catastrophes. For 2017, the humanitarian community requires US$ 2.1 billion to reach 12 million people with life-saving assistance and protection in Yemen. Only 6 per cent of that funding has been received thus far.”
“I continue to reiterate the same message: it is only a political solution that will ultimately end human suffering and bring stability to the region…The situation for people in each country is dire and without a major international response, the situation will get worse.”
Whatever else we are, we are citizens of the world. Whatever we may disagree about, we can all see that these human conflicts threaten the survival of 20 million of our fellow human beings and jeopardise our collective security and our common humanity.
Challenges on this scale cannot be addressed by a politics which looks only inwards and puts domestic interests first. To rise to such challenges we need a global politics and global leadership.
The UN has set out the nature of this global crisis very clearly. We now need to respond as global citizens and demand the necessary global action.
The global economy of care (May 2016)
Instinct, heart and reason – the refugee crisis (August 2016)
Giving peace a voice (August 2015)
Democratic emotions in the face of barbarism (April 2015)