Africa’s hidden slaughter deserves as much attention as the tsunami

by Kevin Watkins
Monday January 17, 2005
The Guardian

In his final inaugural address, delivered 50 years ago this week, President Roosevelt found solace in what he saw as a moral awakening forced by the death, destruction and chaos of war. “We have learned,” he told Congress, “to be citizens of the world, members of the human community.”

As the world struggles with the tragedy of the tsunami, those words have a powerful resonance. The outpouring of grief, the generosity of public giving and the response by governments says something important: that people in rich countries care about the suffering of people in poor countries on the other side of the world – and care enough not just to act through charity but to force their governments to act. Perhaps the compassion created by the tsunami signals that we have learned to be citizens of the world. Or does it?

Two days before Christmas, the UN said it had had to halve food rations to 2.8 million people hit by drought in southern Africa. The reason: chronic underfunding of an emergency food appeal. No cameras, no public outcry; just a lot of Africans left to go hungry. What sort of community treats its weakest members this way? Nothing can detract from the scale of human need in Asia. Public pressure and media interest can help ensure that governments deliver the aid that is needed to prevent disease today, and to restore the homes, livelihoods and infrastructure on which the future depends.

More aid, effectively delivered, is a moral and humanitarian imperative. But it is no less of an imperative to break the grip of abject poverty and avoidable suffering in Africa and elsewhere. In the next hour more than 1,000 children under five will die from illnesses linked to poverty. Half of them will be African – a death toll equivalent to two tsunamis a month. Unlike the suffering in Asia, these deaths are avoidable. But there is no three-minute silence for the victims. And there is little pressure on most northern governments to do anything about it. Consider just one cause of the slaughter: malaria kills more than a million people a year. It is implicated in at least a fifth of Africa’s child deaths. Most of these could be avoided by using a combination of drugs (average cost of about $2) and insecticide-treated nets (about $5). In all, about $1bn (?530m) in aid is needed to win the war on malaria – roughly what the rich world spends each day subsidising agriculture.

Yet global initiatives to combat malaria remain massively underfunded. Why are we so indifferent? Partly because it is not a global media event.

The tsunami was a highly visible disaster. Its terrifying immediacy, unavoidable and apocalyptic nature, and the biblical scale of destruction provided images that sustained media interest and held the northern public in awe. People have been moved by pictures of grieving parents.

African parents also grieve for their children. But their emergency is a silent one. Deaths caused by hunger, poverty and our indifference do not provide material for a media feeding frenzy. Just as in Britain the media prefer train crashes over road accidents that claim far more lives, in development they prefer a natural disaster.

Public pressure, sustained by the media, has prompted governments to pledge more than $2bn in aid and debt relief for countries affected by the tsunami – including governments that have declared themselves too cash-strapped to increase aid for Africa. Indonesia is now getting debt relief. Meanwhile, Zambia – a country with one of the highest HIV/Aids infection rates in Africa – must spend five times more on debt than health.

Then there is trade. After four years of talks, the Doha “development round” has delivered nothing for Africa. Low commodity prices are not even on the agenda. Meanwhile, the EU’s lamentable excuse for reform of the common agricultural policy – which raises overall spending – means European taxpayers still fund a system that reinforces poverty in Africa and keeps African farmers out of Europe’s markets. Hypocrisy is too polite a term.

We must build on the groundswell of compassion unleashed by the tsunami to end the injustice and indifference at the heart of Africa’s crisis. We have the opportunity. Later this month, the UN Millennium Project will set out an agenda for mobilising the resources needed to halve extreme poverty, reduce child deaths and educate children. Britain can push the G8 to act on aid and unfair trade. Public opinion must get behind Africa.

Last week, Gordon Brown set out his “Marshall Plan” for Africa. Recalling Roosevelt, he reminded us that we are a single “moral community”. We need to behave like members of that community.

Kevin Watkins is director of the UNDP Human Development Report