Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Somalia Cries Out For Help

"So we struggling, fighting to eat and
We wondering when we’ll be free
So we patiently wait, for that fateful day
It’s not far away, so for now we say
When I get older, I will be stronger
They’ll call me freedom, just like a Waving Flag"
K'naan, Somali-Canadian songwriter singer

"This is not about Charity
This is about Justice"

      Famine is not a word used lightly by the humanitarian agencies that work around the world. While many countries struggle with food security issues and large numbers of people go hungry, rarely are there conditions that exist to declare a state of famine. To declare a famine, more than thirty percent of the population are found to be suffering from malnutrition, over twenty percent of households face extreme food shortages and are unable to cope, and the death rate exceeds two persons per day for every 10,000 persons.
      For the first time in almost twenty years the UN has declared a famine in southern Somalia, with the added stress of large-scale displacement, violence by Islamic militants who are blocking aid to the stricken region, and widespread destitution, destruction and disease, leading to complete social collapse. More than 11 million people are at risk of starvation and thousands are migrating from the area to refugee centres.

      The Canadian government has just announced that it will immediately increase famine relief to the area three-fold, and will create a fund to match individual charitable donations dollar-for-dollar. The $50 million dollar pledge, which exceeded expectations by aid agencies, is to be added to the $22 million dollars already donated to the Horn of Africa. International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda visited the region last week and on Friday made the announcement, adding that “I truly believe you cannot witness this kind of suffering without responding.”
      Minister Oda visited a refugee camp in Kenya intended to hold 90,000 that is now overcrowded with 400,000 and counting. She heard heartbreaking stories and met some of the refugees from the stricken region. She spoke of meeting a young mother who was taken hostage and released when she went into labour. She then gave birth at the side of a road and walked with her children for three days to the camp. There were children who made it to the camps alone, sometimes walking for over two weeks. Many more did not make it.
     Minister Oda intended the matching-fund program to tap into the hearts and generosity of Canadians. As our islands hold our annual fund raising efforts through our fall fairs and celebrations we should also make an effort to reach out to those less fortunate than ourselves. Already there is talk in some communities of donating proceeds of these events to the Horn of Africa efforts. For those that want to donate individually, the newly formed Humanitarian Coalition which is made up of Canadian aid groups, encourages Canadians to match the governments compassion and generosity and donate to the Canadian charity of their choice. Many are already in the area, working to bring aid.
      The region called the “ Horn of Africa” has been facing drought-related hunger for some time. Even without political instability and war this region has long suffered from a farm productivity crisis. Africa is the only region on Earth where human poverty and hunger have been increasing, and with increasing poverty comes increasing malnutrition and instability. It is sadly ironic that the majority of the malnourished poor are smallholder farmers, mostly women. Men often leave for the cities to find employment, leaving families behind to tend the crops. In unstable regions the men may be enlisted into the military or militant groups, or even killed. Even without political instability, the basics that we take for granted are not there. Roads to markets are poor, the work is labour intensive, water is hard to access – yet, within their system of farming they are very efficient. Nothing is wasted, labour is used efficiently and skills are high. Besides the immediate needs to lessen the impact of the current famine, many of the aid agencies and the UN are calling for long term assistance for the region – and Africa as a whole – to deal with the main causes of the poverty, and to improve the food producing capacity with water systems and agricultural support. The goal is to build in long term resilience by preserving livelihoods and strengthening agriculture to ensure long term food security.
      It wasn't that many years ago that Somalia was having a similar crisis. As a young boy, K'naan Warsame was living in the midst of a war zone. He witnessed murders and bombings, and his mother was determined to get them out. She was reported to have walked through gunfire to the US Embassy to file a visa, and continued to go there each day until they were able to leave in 1991. Shortly after, the Somalian government collapsed and the country was engulfed in violence. K'naan and his family eventually ended up in Canada, where he became a rising star in the hip-hop world and is best known to most Canadians for the song “Waving Flag”, an anthem of freedom for his homeland Somalia. “Waving Flag” was used to raise awareness for the plight in Haiti, was often heard during the Olympics in Vancouver and was the official anthem of the 2010 FIFA World Cup Soccer Tournament. K'naan's strength and success is testimony to the value of helping those who are part of our human family, even if we are an ocean apart and many miles and cultures away.

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