Africans go hungry across world's poorest continent

To witness Africa’s unrelenting hunger, look no further than into the fever-bright eyes of 17 severely malnourished infants languishing in a West African hospital.

Worse than normal food crises raging all but unaddressed in parts of Mali and elsewhere in Africa this year have focused new attention on the politics and geography of hunger across the world’s poorest continent, as well as on how rich nations respond.

The United Nations says it needs $2-billion to help feed more than 25-million Africans in 2005. Funds raised so far? Less than half, with a $1,1-billion shortfall.

“Hot spots come and go due to crisis and drought, but the vast majority of people [Africans] are just too poor to feed themselves when there’s a slight disruption of their environment,” says Peter Smerdon, a spokesperson for the UN’s World Food Programme.

This year’s hot spots have been in West Africa, where poor rains and a plague of locusts last year wiped out crops and grazing lands. Aid groups warned late last year of looming hunger across Niger, Mali, Mauritania and Burkina Faso.

Amid international donors’ preoccupation with the Asian tsunami disaster, pleas for help for West Africa were mostly ignored.
Only in recent weeks when media beamed images of starving children in Niger around the globe did aid start to arrive in that country.

“As you can see from Niger, you have a long period with nothing, then the camera crews arrive and it becomes a political issue. Then aid arrives,” says Smerdon.

Still, across Africa, “the vast majority of people are forgotten”, he says.

One in three of Africa’s 900-million people lack enough food each day, the United Nations says. African hunger is “a chronic problem, particularly in chronically impoverished places. It takes only something small to push people into the position where they need food aid,” says Smerdon.

“The long-term solution is more development.”

In eastern Africa, five years of lower-than-normal rains have led to a prolonged drought in Eritrea and Ethiopia that has seen an upsurge in those needing food aid.

In Ethiopia, five million of the country’s 70-million people are termed by experts as chronically hungry, surviving on emergency food aid and a work-for-food or cash programme. Further, about four million other Ethiopians have needed food aid due to the prolonged drought.

Each year in Kenya, about 1,5-million people receive food aid from the government and the World Food Programme because they live in arid and semi-arid areas where they can’t grow crops. The sale of livestock often doesn’t earn enough to purchase adequate food.

In the sand-blown belt stretching from Eritrea in the east to Mauritania in the west, this year’s crisis is largely environmental, save those going hungry in Sudan’s civil-war embroiled Darfur region.

In Southern Africa’s Zimbabwe the blame is placed on mankind.

UN experts say about four million people urgently need relief food to survive until the next harvest in Zimbabwe. The seizure of white-owned farms five years ago by the government of increasingly autocratic President Robert Mugabe led to the collapse of agriculture, once the mainstay of one of the strongest economies in

the region.

Export earnings have plummeted and inflation and unemployment—and hunger—have soared.

Southern Africa is now entering its September-December “lean season” where food stores run low ahead of a new harvest.

In West Africa, rains are now falling in the hardest-hit regions and the harvest is only weeks away, heralding the end of the lean season there. But aid is still needed to tide West Africans over.

In Niger, with all its media attention, the World Food Programme still has raised less than half of the $57,6-million it says it needs for its operation in the world’s poorest nation.

The agency on Tuesday nearly doubled its appeal to $13,6-million for Mali, where 1,2-million people are facing food shortages.

Hardest-hit areas in Mali include towns near the western border with Senegal, in the north near Timbuktu and in the remote east around the city of Gao.

In Gao, eight of the 17 emaciated babies at the local hospital last week had arrived from the city centre, where markets are full of food—but many nearby residents are too poor to buy it. Three of the babies have already died.

The governments of Mali and Niger, along with most aid workers, eschew the term “famine,” which connotes massive food shortages and widespread hunger and loss of life across all levels of society, not just children.

But Mohammed Ould Mahmoud, Mali programme director for British-based charity Oxfam, disagrees.

“They say there’s no famine in Mali, but that’s false. People aren’t able to eat for three or four days,” he says in his offices in the capital, Bamako. “Forget the political or academic definitions,” he says. “The situation is very grave.” - Sapa-AP

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