The fight against famine continues

“Famine outcomes no longer exist in southern Somalia”.  These eight words, at the start of a dry assessment released on Friday by the Food Security and Nutrition Analysis Unit in Nairobi, can hardly be considered a cause for celebration. For the last four months, a part of the world had been struck by famine – not just food shortage, or even extreme hunger, but the appalling conditions that meet the strict technical definition of a famine.  As ONE insisted, no f-word could be more obscene. Drought may be inevitable, but famine is not – and famine in the 21st century is an obscenity.

So it’s difficult to jump for joy at the news that this famine has come to an end – not least because millions of people in the Horn of Africa are still in desperate need.  In Somalia especially, where new concerns about access for humanitarian organisations are emerging, the famine has left people more vulnerable than ever. Like a determined boxer who hauls himself to his feet after taking a beating, the next punch could be the most devastating of all.

And yet, the fact remains that while the world took too long to act on early warnings of crisis in 2011, it did act. Millions of people, from ordinary citizens to policymakers, stepped forward. The global African diaspora demanded action. 400,000 people signed ONE’s petition urging leaders to do more. Leading politicians responded in the European Commission, the African Union, the UK, Sweden and Kenya. Millions of people contributed to the UN’s most successful humanitarian appeal and record public appeals in Britain, Germany and countless other countries. Critically, aid workers from Africa and across the world delivered relief in the most challenging of conditions, and continue to do so right now.  All these actions saved lives.

And now this belated but strong effort has been rewarded with a little good fortune. Somalia has enjoyed a better-than-expected harvest. That has pushed food prices down in local markets and there is, for now at least, room to breathe.

Now the obvious question: can we stop this happening again? If political promises made years ago had been kept in the first place, we could have avoided much of the terrible human cost of the last few months. They must be kept now – by African governments who promised to invest ten per cent of their money on agriculture, and by richer nations who made commitments at the G8.  And of course it isn’t just about money. More progress was made at last year’s Cannes G20 summit to reduce the volatility in global food prices that has caused havoc in the poorest families’ budgets. That progress needs to be built on urgently.

Together, we managed to force action on this famine over the last few months. Let’s keep that pressure up. We need to build a movement that can keep food and agriculture at the top of the agenda. The US, who host this year’s G8 summit, have a big leadership role.  The Horn of Africa’s wealthy neighbours in the Gulf are global players too, well able to do their part. And governments in Europe must keep their promises, starting with the British-led conference on Somalia later this month. Overcoming extreme hunger is not just a fight we must face.  It’s one we can win.