The famine in the Horn of Africa and a crisis of priorities

Half a million people dragged themselves across a dusty, barren, carcass-strewn landscape this summer, through conflict zones and rebel posts, hoping to find aid in overcrowded refugee camps.

For many, the journey took weeks and upon arrival at the Dadaab camps in Kenya—now the haven for 400,000 Somalis—they faced another crisis: not enough supplies, space or staff to meet their needs.

While Ethiopia, Djibouti, and Kenya are also affected by food insecurity, much of the media attention has focused on Somalia, where the United Nations declared a famine in late July.

The causes of the food emergency are complex, including civil war in Somalia, an enormous increase in food prices and the worst drought the Horn of Africa has endured in 60 years. But the global response has been slow.

Although the UN didn’t issue appeals for aid until July, the Famine Early Warning Systems Network first sent warnings to governments and aid agencies last October.

Little was done until the faces of starving children made their way onto television screens eight months later. The UN has appealed for US$2.48 billion in aid for the 12 million affected people in the Horn of Africa.

By Aug. 25, just US$1.4 billion had been received. The global financial crisis cannot be blamed for the shortfall. If the nine nuclear-armed nations can collectively scrape together US$100 billion dollars for their nuclear programmes this year, money is available for what’s considered important.

Priorities are at fault.

A bizarre example of this perversion of priorities occurred around the same time that news reports began to trickle out about the famine. In June, the British Council’s conference on Science, Culture, and Modernity was held to discuss a number of issues, including one that Guardian journalist Andrew Brown considered the “best question” to be raised: Should we clone Neanderthals? Brown stated that “Whatever happened, it would be entirely fascinating to observe…It would enrich our understanding of consciousness, of biodiversity, and it should also be wonderful for the Neanderthals. Who would not rather be alive and healthy than dead?”

Millions of starving people in the Horn of Africa would rather be alive and healthy than dead, as would more than one billion people on the planet whose lives are threatened by hunger, preventable diseases, and water-borne illnesses.

Couldn’t human resources and capital be better used to preserve their lives? The right to life is the most fundamental human right and everything should be done to ensure that it’s one all humans can realise.

If we can put men on the moon, send missions to Mars, or even clone  Neanderthals, surely we can find lasting solutions to the things that threaten lives in the developing world.

The famine in the Horn of Africa – and the inadequate global response – is an illustration of the sad reality that in spite of the intelligence and ingenuity that the human species possesses, many of us lack the ability to look beyond our borders and selfish ambitions and do what’s right for those we share the planet with.

Perhaps if Neanderthals were cloned, we’d discover how little we’ve really evolved.

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