Famine in Africa confirms international aid system isn’t working

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim
Dr. Azeem Ibrahim - Azeem Ibrahim
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After much encouraging news coming out of Africa in the last decade on the development front, the continent is back in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons. Stephen O’Brien, the UN under secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, has warned that as many as 20 million face famine in Africa, in South Sudan, Somalia, Nigeria, as well as nearby Yemen – the worst humanitarian crisis the UN has faced since its foundation in 1945.

To be clear, famine is not the same things as starvation. Famine is a technical term employed by the UN. It is declared when 20 percent of a population have no access to food or know where they will get their next meal from, when 30 percent of children under 5 in that population are severely malnourished, and when you have mortality rates of over 2 per 10,000 per day, as a consequence. Put another way, to say that 20 million face famine is to say that we already have 4,000 people dying of hunger every day. And the total amount of aid required to “avert a catastrophe” would run to $4.4bn by July.

What makes the situation particularly galling is that this situation is primarily a consequence of war. But in Africa itself, the conflicts which fuel the situations in South Sudan, Somalia and Nigeria are internal, and the result of decades of poor management and neglect, and an entrenched culture of corruption.

Nevertheless, we in the international community are left to pick up the tab. And of course we will. We must. We cannot allow so many people, usually the most innocent and vulnerable in those countries, to suffer for the follies of their overlords, or of foreign powers.

We cannot allow so many people, usually the most innocent and vulnerable in those countries, to suffer for the follies of their overlords, or of foreign powers.

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

But it is also unreasonable that these countries, and their leaders, expect us to step in and bail them out, while many of the very same leaders continue to reign over organised systems of corruption, happily plunder the wealth of their countries, and fight any civil society efforts to improve governance and hold them accountable for their actions. Make no mistake. What we have here are some of the richest countries in the world in terms of natural resources which are being wrecked because of corruption and incompetence.

Immediate priority

That is why we must make sure that the humanitarian aid we provide is a bail-out for those suffering from starvation, but not also a bail-out for those who have caused these problems in the first place. Feeding those in need is the immediate, short-term priority. But making sure that those who caused the situation are held accountable for it is equally important as a longer-term priority if we are going to reduce the recurrence of these problems in the future.

The first and most obvious thing to do is for the international community to focus their aid budgets more on promoting good governance and tackling corruption. Tony Blair’s Africa Governance Initiative is a good model on how to approach this issue.

But we can and should go much further than that. Take for example the money spirited away in secretive bank accounts in the West by these leaders. We already have national and global anti-corruption and anti-money-laundering powers to investigate accounts linked to criminal activity.

There is no reason why we could not expand those powers to recoup, form the accounts of the relevant leaders, the cost of feeding the starving. It makes moral, financial and political sense to invoice and forcefully debit the accounts of past and present corrupt Nigerian leaders to feed Nigerians. Just as it makes sense to invoice South Sudanese accounts linked to the state to feed the opposition they are fighting.

What is broken about the current model of international aid is the lack of accountability. The poor and vulnerable suffer, Western people and governments bear the financial costs for alleviating that suffering, and the perpetrators get to laugh all the way to the bank. The way to make international aid work is to make the perpetrators accountable.

First of all, target the systems which allow them to plunder their countries as they so often do, and secondly, in all events serve them directly, as individuals, the bill for the consequences of their choices and actions.
Azeem Ibrahim is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Global Policy and Adj Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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