I was on a whirlwind tour of various places in the west of Ireland recently, attending Gorta Self Help Africa events, especially the Gorta Self Help Africa Ball where close on €30,000 was raised for the charity’s work in 10 countries in Africa. We are so thankful for this support, and indeed from all the parishes in Galway and the west of Ireland that have organised fundraising events during the year.
I have worked almost all my adult life for charities whose role is to end poverty and suffering in poorer parts of the world. It is sometimes a case of ‘two steps forward, one step back’. Take Ethiopia and Malawi, for example. Until not too long ago both of these countries were reporting great economic growth. However, as we entered 2017 the picture was very different — as rural poor communities in both endured some of the toughest times they have experienced in many years.
The reasons for this are complex, but put simply, a combination of devastating floods and unseasonal drought and unrest, especially in parts of Ethiopia, which has left close on 25 million people in East Africa in need of food assistance, and most of which are the rural poor farming communities looking at barren fields and empty grain stores.
In Malawi, reports are that as many as 6.5 million people, or 40 per cent of the population, were going to need food aid this year and well into next year. Both local commentators and international observers blame the current crisis on global warming, and an inability of rural poor and vulnerable households to adapt to the impact of changing climate on their ability to produce the crops that they need to put food on the table from one month to the next. This is where the organisation I work for comes in.
Across Malawi, Ethiopia, and parts of East Africa, Gorta-Self Help Africa is implementing programmes that are focused on improving agricultural production, helping households to adapt to changing climate, and supporting farmers so they can grow and earn more — and thus improve the food that they can provide, the education and healthcare they can pay for, and the support they can give to their families. In short, the aim is to break the cycle of hunger and poverty that is a reality for many millions of people across sub-Saharan Africa, Malawi and Ethiopia included.
As anyone who is involved in farming in Ireland will tell you, there are no guarantees when it comes to producing on the land. Yields fluctuate all the time, depending on the weather, while prices for farm commodities also go up and down, depending on the seasons and numerous other factors. In Africa it is no different, and today the changes in climate are putting more challenges in the way of vulnerable poor communities for whom the margins between having enough and not are narrow indeed.
Today, more than half of the world’s population lives on less than €2 a day. Almost one billion people across the globe, most of them children, live with hunger or malnutrition as a regular fact of life. These numbers are daunting, but they should not paralyze us. They should instead call us to reflection and action. Rather than looking at the current crisis in Ethiopia and Malawi and elsewhere such as Eritrea, Yemen, and South Sudan as too big for us to tackle, we should look at it as an opportunity to put our care for humanity into action, to be the carers in society, to lift up the virtues and ethical principles that enhance human dignity. We can make a difference if we mobilise together in unity to combat poverty, because we have done so in the past.
There is reason for hope and no excuse for inaction. Countries in parts of Africa in the last year or so have been waking up to the most serious global food crisis of the last 30 years. Caused by the strongest El Niño weather event since 1982, droughts and heatwaves have ravaged much of parts of East Africa like Ethiopia and Malawi – both countries where Gorta-Self Help Africa has been working for many years.
The work is sometimes frustrating, as the changes in climate can at times unravel months and years of good work. The communities in Balaka region of Malawi were thriving. Their children were attending school, you could see the new tin sheets gleaming on their houses, and you knew that things were on the up and up. And then in one part of the country the floods came, and drought took over the rest. However despite the recent setbacks, many of these people are in better shape than their neighbours – as alternate crop varieties, the fact that they had some food (or money ) in reserve, and the fact that most households are no longer reliant just on a single crop – corn – means that their circumstances in 2017 were not as serious as they might have been.
In one village, peanut farming, a cash crop well matched to both climate and market conditions, was introduced by Gorta-Self Help Africa for the first time. Properly bagged nuts are largely non-perishable, travel well, and do not have to be sold at peak harvest time, so they can be held back until better prices can be obtained.
East Africa’s global request for help could not come at a worse time, as other large-scale humanitarian crises unfold in places like Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and South Sudan. But we cannot turn our backs on Ethiopia, Malawi, and other parts of East Africa — we must learn from what the history books tell us about the region. You need only look back to the Horn of Africa drought in 2011, which affected 13 million people and resulted in more than 250,000 dying from hunger in Somalia and the Horn of Africa countries. Back then, the early warning signs began to emerge a full year earlier, yet the international community took until the peak of the crisis to act at a sufficient level. But it was too late and much of the damage had been done already.
In the years that followed that scandalous failure of the international system, a range of preventive measures was put in place to ensure history did not repeat, including the implementation of large-scale drought resilience programmes and strong policy commitments from donor countries. But here we are again.
This drought is the strongest in Ethiopia and Malawi in 30 years, yet funding commitments from international donors are worryingly low. Ireland must play its part too like it did in 2011 when it gave much needed funding for the Horn of Africa drought response and was commended for its leadership in galvanising other donors to act.
This is no ordinary year in Ethiopia and parts of East Africa. This is a “code red” and it needs to be treated like one. But I know from my own experience that things have changed in Africa a great deal over the past 30 years or so, and that even in the tragedy and suffering we saw recently in Somalia, Southern Sudan, The Congo, Ethiopia, and East Africa there are signs of hope for the future.
But statistics as I mentioned above can indicate the magnitude of the problem and the urgency of the task. More than half of the world’s population lives on less than €2 a day. More than 1.2 billion people live on less than €1 a day. Almost a billion people across the globe, most of them children, live with hunger or malnutrition as a regular fact of life. They live in desperate poverty, which means they die younger than they should, struggle with hunger and disease, and live with little hope and less opportunity for a life of dignity.
But poverty is not limited to the poorest countries. In Ireland, thousands of people live below the official poverty line. The younger you are in our country, the more likely you are to be poor, basically because we have kicked the debt from our excessive living and greed down the road so that the younger generation of today and tomorrow will have to pay for it.
Children are the real wealth of all nations. They are the world’s most precious human resource. As the saying goes, ‘a forest without young trees today will never be a forest tomorrow’. It is imperative therefore that a child born today in Ethiopia, Malawi, and indeed any part of Africa should survive, grow, and develop to their fullest potential in order for Ethiopia and Malawi and other African countries to have a prosperous future, indeed to have any future.
Gorta Self Help Africa’s vision is to see an end to hunger and poverty in Africa. There is unquestionably a long way to go before we reach this ideal - before we reach a time when childhoods across Africa will be work-free, well nurtured, and safe from all types of abuse. In the meantime, although these children are part of the very visible legacy of a malfunctioning society, they nonetheless bear witness to the endurance and potential of the human spirit.
Children in these poor countries cannot wait. They have but one opportunity. Their needs must be met today, not tomorrow. For children, tomorrow is too late.
The littlest things can help make a difference. Simple examples of this difference include the church gate collections in many parts of our country. It is in this way that we can all play our part in helping to an end to hunger, poverty, and misery in Africa.
The fight against hunger and poverty in Africa — and in Ireland — is not anyone’s responsibility. It is everyone’s. Though I saw suffering on my last trips to Malawi and Ethiopia and over the years, I also met some truly beautiful people, all of them friendly and welcoming. I came away feeling richly blessed to have met them and as though I was the one being helped, not the other way round.
Gorta Self Help Africa cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, take credit for this situation where many of the farmers are in a position to fully cope with the crisis. But the organisation I work for has been a contributor, and has played its part in helping the people and smallholding farmers of Ethiopia and Malawi and indeed in eight other countries in Africa to move towards a time where hunger and poverty will no longer be a part of their future.
It is a long and slow road certainly, but it is a journey that is both richly rewarding and worthwhile, for there is no better thing that you can do in life than to love and care for another human being in need whether that is someone in need in Ireland or in Africa or in any place in our world.
To make a donation or find out more about the work of Gorta Self Help Africa and to “act locally but impact globally”, you can make a credit or Laser card donation by phoning ((01 ) 6778880 or simply send whatever you can afford to Gorta Self Help Africa, Westside Resource Centre, Seamus Quirke Road, Westside, Galway, or to Gorta Self Help Africa, Kingsbridge House, 17-22 Parkgate Street, Dublin 8.
Because the needs of the poor are ongoing, the ideal way of supporting Gorta Self Help Africa is via a direct debit order from your bank. For people who have nothing, a little can mean a lot. Please also see details on www.selfhelpafrica.org to take part in the many fundraising events for Gorta Self Help Africa organised throughout the year, or come up with your own Gorta Self Help Africa event, or buy some of Gorta Self Help Africa’s gifts at www.selfhelpafrica.org, or email [email protected].