With the January sales upon us, the seasonal soundtracks have disappeared from stores. For most of us, it will be another 11 months before we are once again subjected to the plaintive wail of “Do you know it’s Christmas?”
Band Aid’s 1984 hit single made it harder for UK audiences to ignore one of the most severe famines of modern times and sparked a host of humanitarian concerns. However, it also reinforced deeply troubling tropes about helpless Africans and white saviors that continue to worsen the way people in the UK think about hunger, poverty and aid.
This is important at this time because East Africa faces the most serious hunger crisis in a generation, brought on by five failed rainy seasons, conflict, indebtedness, and spiraling food and energy costs.
Some 36 million people go hungry, and the region risks a lost generation of children permanently affected by chronic malnutrition.
BandAid casts a long shadow. The idea that drought and famine are simply an integral part of life in East Africa and that no matter how much aid is offered, the region will remain an aid sink simply breeds apathy and cynicism.
This perception also makes it difficult for the story to be told. The UK public is not so much indifferent to the current crisis as they are unaware. Media silence coupled with donor fatigue may help explain why, despite early warnings from the UN and humanitarian agencies, the response of international governments has so far been reckless.
UN Horn of Africa Drought Appeal is 45 percent underfunded in Kenya. Somalia, the hardest-hit country in the region, still faces a $500 million deficit.
Slow and underfunded relief efforts may seem like a necessary cost-cutting exercise for some governments. But in the long run, a late response costs more money and lives. That lesson was learned after the 2011 drought in the Horn of Africa, which killed 250,000 people, half of them before famine broke out.
Unlike 2017, in an unnamed success, the humanitarian community acted quickly on an improved early warning system and prevented major loss of life.
Now, however, these lessons risk being lost in the mists of political expediency.
The UK’s financial contribution to the current crisis is a fifth of what it was in 2017, when the aid cuts came into effect.
So, as we move into the new year, the UK urgently needs to play its full financial and diplomatic role in a coordinated international response to prevent major loss of life in East Africa. A fully funded UN appeal is urgently needed.
But this international effort must be based on genuine successes. The current situation would be much worse if it were not for a decade of investment in climate-resilient agriculture, social safety nets, and water conservation. This needs to be scaled.
Any effort must address the root causes of hunger, in a region facing erratic rainfall, rising temperatures, a growing population and widespread conflict.
Action on the climate crisis is key: keeping the 1.5 degree target within reach; enable communities to adapt farming methods; and create financial buffers that allow people to withstand climate impacts.
So is the action to reform the financial architecture. It is obscene that while on the brink of famine, Somalia spends more than any other country on servicing its foreign public debt.
Nearly 40 years after Band Aid and more than a decade since the last great famine in East Africa, it is time to consign the chimes of doom to history.
It is time to move on to a more hopeful and accurate description of the challenge of extreme hunger and what can be done about it. There’s no better time than now to take off your band-aid and put that new vision into action.
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