Horn of Africa a test of conscience

Updated: 2011-09-02 07:59

By Chen Weihua (China Daily)

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Horn of Africa a test of conscience

In a meeting on the humanitarian crisis in the Horn of Africa (HOA) held at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, participants got so angry that they did not even feel the 5.8 magnitude earthquake that struck part of the East Coast.

They were enraged at the world community, which has not done nearly enough to prevent the deaths and the worsening famines in the East African peninsula. They were furious at the lack of attention in the news media for the 12.4 million people in Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya and Djibouti who need immediate food assistance.

After rebels captured most of Tripoli, the big US cable networks concentrated almost 24/7 on the hunt for Muammar Gaddafi. In subsequent days, the networks switched to the earthquake that was not felt by the experts, then Hurricane Irene, and then the incessant argument about whether New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg had overreacted to and over-prepared for the storm.

Those experts from emergency relief organizations, aid groups, foundations and think tanks at the HOA meeting would probably beg the whole world to overreact and over-prepare for the drought and famine. It is a natural and humanitarian disaster that was predicated a year ago and it is a famine that could have been prevented had the world community taken earlier and stronger action.

If you check news media in North America, Europe and Asia these days, you might think the drought and famine in the HOA is already a thing of the past.

That clearly is not the case according to both experts from relief organizations at the meeting and United Nations agencies.

The 12.4 million people affected by the famine still need urgent food aid today. About 3.7 million Somalis, more than a third of the country's population, are facing starvation. No major harvest is expected until the beginning of next year.

Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of Somali refugees have fled conflict and famine to live in vast camps in Kenya and Ethiopia, where health issues, such as measles and cholera are already a big concern, according to experts at the meeting.

The UN has asked for $2.5 billion in humanitarian aid from the world community. But there is still a $1 billion shortfall.

Aware of the slow progress in aid from the international community, I don't know how anyone can fail to be as angry as the experts at the meeting.

Despite the hardships such as the high unemployment in the US and high inflation in China, each of us is still far better off than those facing famine and starvation in the HOA.

You can blame the poor governance of countries in the region, the civil conflict in Somalia or the blockade of aid by militant group al-Shabaab, but these should not be excuses for any government, organization and individual to ignore the suffering of people in the HOA.

That news media should be devoting more coverage to the divorce of a movie star than the suffering of people in the HOA only highlights the shortcomings of the media and society today.

Our attitude toward HOA will be a major test of our human conscience and moral standards in this ever globalized world.

The author, based in New York, is deputy editor of China Daily US edition. E-mail: chenweihua@chinadaily.com.cn

(China Daily 09/02/2011 page8)