East Africa – famine aid and human rights advocacy on the Horn of Africa


Death from hunger is preceded by long, agonising weeks of starvation. Mind and body at first adapt to the continuing shortage of food, lowering the metabolism to a minimum. Muscles shrink, skin cracks, hair goes limp, the remaining strength is just enough for isolated and painfully slow movements. If there is still no food, the reserves that keep the body alive finally run out. In her novel ‘The Hunger Angel’ (Atemschaukel, trans. Phillip Boehm), writer Herta Mueller says that in the course of the agony, starvation passes through a point of absolute zero, which ‘cannot be expressed’. ‘And we agree, absolute zero and I, that absolute zero itself is beyond discussion, except in the most roundabout way.’

Flight to Dadaab

The reason why the subject here – despite its ultimate inexpressibility – is starvation is that the famine in summer 2011 on the Horn of Africa became an acute threat to almost 12 million people, and brought several tens of thousands to the ‘absolute zero’ mentioned above. It is also important to note that two million of those starving were children, 500,000 of them in a life-threatening condition which left them with injuries that will stay with them throughout their lifetime. Something that must be expressed is that this disaster was known about and had been predicted for a long time, and even so nothing was done for far too long. The UN call for immediate funding of EUR 300 million for east Africa was unanswered for weeks; Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon announced in mid-July that his aid mission needed over EUR 1 billion immediately, but had only half this available; action was only finally taken after hundreds of thousands had fled from drought and famine in search of safety elsewhere. Many of these came to the refugee camps near Dadaab in Kenya. With over 400,000 inhabitants weary in every fibre, Dadaab is the world’s largest refugee camp.

Emergency relief in Ijara

Among those seeking to stem the looming disaster were the Kenyan medico partners, an alliance of smaller organisations which, like medico, are members of the global People’s Health Movement (PHM). As the large refugee camps were supplied by the UN, medico’s partners deliberately concentrated on the indigenous population in east Kenya. The international organisations had withdrawn from this area, because the Al-Shabaab militia were operating there and had already abducted several international aid workers. As the authorities in the Lagdera District revoked agreements which had been entered into and refused to allow two major international aid organisations to work with local organisations, distribution of the urgently needed aid was initially delayed. Finally, the medico partners moved directly to the Somalian border in the neighbouring district of Ijara, where they provided the health station at the remote village of Kotile with aid for acutely undernourished children and supplied food for 110 families. At the same time they organised training courses for ten local health workers and staged public education events on protection against cholera and other diarrheal diseases.

The shortage of food in east Africa is not simply the result of a natural disaster. Although the famine was preceded by a drought, the drought is a consequence of the climate change caused by the countries of the North and the emerging nations. The scarcity of grain is also the result of international food speculation which east African governments could not counter even if they wanted to. The bankruptcy of the health service, like the transport and educational systems, is due to the corruption of the bureaucracy, which in turn is a result of the wretched state of the economy. Moreover, the poverty reigning over the whole region is, not least, due to a number of simultaneous ‘low-intensity wars’, which only attract international attention if they impact global security considerations.

Rights instead of compassion

Under such circumstances, aid cannot be limited to distributing basic foodstuffs and hygiene sets. “Under our constitution, every individual has the right to health services, clean water, education, social protection and a life free from hunger. If the politicians took their constitutional obligations seriously, nobody in Kenya should have starved,” says David Makori of medico partner Kamukunji Paralegal Trust (KAPLET). Like the other KAPLET activists, this is what drives him to travel from village to village, explaining their rights and the social determinants of health to the survivors of drought and famine. With demonstrations supported by two local grassroots groups in the cities of Garissa and Masalani, KAPLET compelled the authorities at least to repair a decayed connecting road. David Makori knows that this will not be enough to cope with the next famine disaster, and this is why he and his fellow campaigners welcomed the appeal (supported by medico) by African and European writers such as Iliya Troyanov, Nuruddin Farah and Uwe Timm: ‘The victims have the right to receive aid – and not only after disasters. Land grabbing and speculation with food have to be stopped. Starving people have the right to be recognised as world citizens.’

In 2011 medico provided EUR 62,553.39 in support to the Kenyan health activists. Support for the work in Kenya is being continued in 2012. We are also now cooperating with two organisations in Somalia which are running aid projects in the border region Gedo and the refugee camps around Mogadishu.

Published: 20. August 2012

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