Oxfam to G7: Step up response to unprecedented famine

On Canada and the G7’s watch, 30 million people in South Sudan, Nigeria, Somalia and Yemen are facing life-threatening conditions. But just as political failure led to these crises, political leadership can resolve them, writes executive director Winnie Byanyima.

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May 25, 2017
A boy holds a kettle as he walks outside his family's hut at a camp for people displaced by the war near Sanaa, Yemen, September 26, 2016. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah

We all celebrated. Poverty in the world halved in just two decades — historic success, humankind at its best, a world altogether more free, less exposed to disease, less violent. More girls in school, too! We Africans were told that, “war, famine and dictators have become rarer.”

Today that celebration stops. I often speak about how our progress towards a better world is threatened by a spiraling gap between rich and poor, withering global governance, climate change and more. Now, in failing to tackle these challenges, something profoundly catastrophic is taking hold.

The UN sounded the alarm earlier this year, joined by Oxfam and others. Our world of plenty is on the brink of unprecedented famine. Even as one famine in one country should be unacceptable, today we face the risk of four — in South Sudan, Nigeria, Somalia and Yemen. People are dying and unless political decisions change, deaths will increase exponentially.

Thirty million people across these four countries are severely hungry. Ten million of them face life-threatening emergency and famine conditions. That’s more people than the population of Québec.

We expect an urgent and bold response to match, most of all by rich and powerful nations like Canada and the other G7 leaders meeting this week in Taormina, Italy. The last famine, only in 2011 in Somalia, should have been the very last; inaction there led to the deaths of nearly 260,000 people, half of them children. We can still prevent a recurrence.

I have just returned from visiting Nigeria and South Sudan where I met resilient women who told me, “We want to walk freely, we want to farm, we want to feed our families.” I joined young people and entrepreneurs helping their communities survive. But even among the local people organizing themselves to share what little food and shelter and resource they have, hope is running out.

I met women newly arriving, hungry and thirsty, in the small town of Pulka in northeast Nigeria. Their harrowing journeys lined their faces. The horrors of life under Boko Haram will not leave them. A man who’d been there for three months with his wife and children — like thousands of people — still sleeps in the open. Now the arrival of over a thousand more people this week from Cameroon is pushing services to the brink, and limited water supplies will become even more stretched. Aid agencies can reach these people — we do what we can. But we need to be able to reach people in areas where potential famine is taking hold.

"[Famines are] manufactured crises — and we saw them coming."

In South Sudan — a country in which deadly famine was declared in February — I saw the chilling impact of a civil war. Entire communities have been driven from their homes by acts of ethnic cleansing. All I have known from war in my own country didn’t prepare me for the carcass of violence I saw. You can’t escape the stench. Malakal used to be South Sudan’s second city; today it’s more of a ghost town. 

The women there rationally explained to me how they choose hunger over the certainty of being raped on the journey out to collect food. The UN recently found that 70 percent of women in Juba, South Sudan’s capital, had been raped or abused since the war began three years prior.

But just as political failure led to these crises, political leadership can resolve them.

The fundamental responsibility, yes, lies with those countries and the warring parties across the contexts. They must meet their most basic obligations to protect their people, provide services and uphold the safe passage of aid.   

Yet leaders of the G7 rich and powerful nations must be responsible to these people, too.

Their immediate priority must be to save these people’s lives — we are billions shy of the funding target. And money can't sit in bank accounts; it must reach those in need as quickly as possible. The UN is asking for $6.3 billion for all four countries but the world has given less than a third of it. Oxfam has calculated the commitment of countries to a ‘fair share’ of funding to the crises, based on their national income, and so far no G7 country has met this level, even though it is a tiny fraction of their budgets. 

France, Italy and Japan have not given their fair share for any of the four countries, whilst inhumane proposals to withdraw life-saving aid now menace lives. The Trump administration must not hold back the U.S. Congress’ $990 million pledge to address famine. Lives depend on it.

We welcome Canada’s past generosity, but much more is needed in the face of what the UN has described as “the largest humanitarian crisis since the end of the Second World War”. The G7 summit in Taormina is a critical moment for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to encourage other leaders to pay up and push for peace. In Canada, Oxfam is calling on the government to match all future donations of the Canadian public dollar for dollar to encourage the generosity of Canadians — like Canada did so memorably in response to the Syrian refugee crisis.

The most resounding plea from women I met — who have borne the brunt of the violence — was for peace. The international community must no longer be so polite. It is time to finally apply all its diplomatic pressure to push the parties towards the hard choices needed to end these conflicts. And if countries and armed groups fight — we’re realists — there are rules of war to fight by. They must too grant safe passage for civilians and access to aid agencies so we can help save lives in safety.

"The G7 countries are not some passive observers; they’re part of an international community that must stop fueling these conflicts."

The G7 countries are not some passive observers; they’re part of an international community that must also stop fueling these conflicts. Most are selling deadly arms to the parties fighting in Yemen even as they urge a political settlement. The U.S. last weekend announced the sale of $110 billion worth of weapons to Saudi Arabia. Precision-guided munitions that have been used to commit horrific abuses in Yemen are front and centre in the sale. The United Kingdom and Canada have also sold arms to Saudi Arabia, in violation of obligations under the Arms Trade Treaty.

The G7 and G20 must also know their responsibility when, in the Horn of Africa, they see more intense natural hazards leading to displacement and fueling massive hunger. These hazards are supercharged by climate change powered primarily by the emissions of rich nations. I see this as cause for more ambition in rich nations’ commitments to the Paris Agreement — not a backslide.

Let’s avoid a catastrophic loss of life. This is happening on the G7 — and Canada’s — watch; they must now inject the necessary cash to save lives and take genuine action for peace. Otherwise, we will be a long time burying the victims of further inaction.

An earlier version of this article was published by the World Economic Forum.