SA's stuttering response to Somali famine
With media’s characteristic preference for the spurious over the serious, the famine in parts of Somalia and the human emergency in the rest of the Horn of Africa will outlast the talking heads' attention spans. While our public battles to hold an appropriately sympathetic expression on its face, SA's real-life reaction to the famine has also been lacking. By KHADIJA PATEL.
On Sunday, aid agency Gift of the Givers left for Mogadishu on two flights packed with 41 tons of supplies, a team of medical practitioners and a group of journalists to tell the unfolding story. The supplies, according to Gift of the Givers’ Imtiaz Suliman, include, “specialised ready-to-drink milk supplements for children, high-energy food supplements, intravenous fluids, antibiotics, malaria medication, a range of other medical supplies, food items, sanitary pads and bottled water.” Gift of the Givers has so far been the most visible South African aid agency to mobilise support and publicity for its relief efforts to afflicted regions, but even they have been slow on the uptake. As the international community began waking up to the severity of the crisis early in July, Daily Maverick contacted Gift of the Givers to find out if a relief mission to the Horn of Africa was planned. The response was beguiling, “Remind me what’s happening there again.”
Media coverage of what the United Nations had originally termed a “humanitarian emergency” steadily improved and with increased media inquiries, Suliman flew to Somalia himself to assess the situation. At the time, the department of international relations and co-operation were similarly taciturn in its response to the situation, with no clear mandate on exactly how to react. While South Africa shifted its feet in preparation, the old classes had already pledged millions in aid to the affected parts of East Africa prompting Britain’s The Telegraph to point out that “no African country has offered a donation to help drought victims in the Horn of Africa outside of those affected”. While the British government had already pledged £38 million in food aid to Ethiopia, the muted response from the continent’s biggest economy, South Africa, sitting on a 40,000 ton grain surplus, seemed out of place.
Lyndsey Duff, a researcher at the Institute for Global Dialogue, believes South Africa’s reactions to humanitarian emergencies are hamstrung by the lack of mechanisms to deal with development aid. The current government setup makes it “... hard to work out reasons to respond to these situations”, says Duff. The need for a more coherent approach to development aid is, however, felt by the South African government and Dirco earlier this year proposed a new development aid agency that would prove fundamental to the country’s plan to play a more prominent role on the continent as a major donor country. Already, South Africa is one of the largest development aid providers in Africa, but the new aid agency, The South African Development Partnership Agency (Sadpa) is set to significantly reduce the bureaucracy and duplication currently impeding South African aid efforts. Duff believes Sadpa will help to significantly improve the flow of information on how South Africa should react to humanitarian emergencies. Duff cautions, however, that Dirco has been reserved about exactly how Sadpa will function and whether it will have an African focus, or if it will indeed recreate South Africa as a hegemonic influence over other African states.
Ultimately, Duff says the confusion over how to respond to humanitarian emergencies is an indictment once more of South Africa’s lack of foreign policy. “It is a huge problem that we do not have a codified foreign policy,” says Duff. Sadpa, as an autonomous, independent agency may assist easing confusion about how to react to humanitarian emergencies, but in the absence of a clearly defined foreign policy, any relief efforts will continue to be stymied.
Last week Dirco announced it had “committed financial and human resources” to relief efforts in Somalia, partnering with international NGO Islamic Relief as well as the Africa Muslims Agency and Netcare to deliver aid to the afflicted areas in Somalia. A further partnership with the SABC to mobilise South Africans to contribute to the cause is also due to be announced later this week.
Without counting Gift of the Givers’ most recent relief shipments, South Africa ranks 28th in the list of the top 30 donors to the food crisis in East Africa with a paltry contribution of $146,199. According to the UN office for the coordination of humanitarian affairs, about $1.1 billion has so far been committed to relief efforts, leaving the gap in funding at about $1 billion. With no immediate end to the famine in sight, aid efforts remain a strategically placed band-aid over festering wounds. DM
Photo: An internally displaced Somali woman stands in a queue for relief food in Hodan, a district south of the capital of Mogadishu, July 30, 2011. The whole of drought- and conflict-wracked southern Somalia is heading into famine as the Horn of Africa food crisis deepens, the United Nations said on Friday. Picture taken July 30, 2011. REUTERS/Ismail Taxta.