This is a tale of two worlds. One rich and powerful. The other desperately poor, destitute and on the brink of the abyss.
The economic crisis in Europe and the impact of austerity policies in Greece, Spain, Italy and in the Irish state are dominating the news agenda at this time. The talk is of billions of euro. Greece owes hundreds of billions. Spanish banks owe billions. The Irish government has given over €20 billion to bad banks to pay off private banking debt. French banks hold billions of euro of Greek debt – and are watching anxiously the unfolding crisis in that state. And then there is the European Financial Stability Facility with its €200 plus billion and the European Stability Mechanism which has €700 billion. Billions and billions and more billions.
If it were not for the dire social consequences of the austerity policies the reader could be forgiven for thinking this is all about monopoly money.
A few hundred miles south of the European Union there is another world – a wretched world of poverty and hunger where 220,000 children regularly die each year from malnourishment and where one in five children will die before they reach the age of five and which now faces its greatest threat.
The Sahel region cuts a wide swathe across north Africa from the Atlantic Ocean in the west to the Red Sea in the east. The 12 states that make up the area are already among the most impoverished countries in the world. Today they face an unparalleled humanitarian disaster.
Of the 187 states that make up the UN human development index Niger is ranked 186, Chad is 183, Burkina Faso 181 and Mali 175.
The Sahel has endured cyclical crises around food and water but usually it afflicts one or two states at any time. This year at least 8 states are affected and between 15 million and 23 million people are at grave risk, among them one million children and hundreds of thousands of pregnant women.
This crisis is not unexpected. In January the EU’s crisis response Commissioner Kristalina Georgieva visited Niger and Chad and warned that, ‘we are running out of time.’
Six months ago the UN World Food Programme was warning of a pending catastrophe. It identified the points of crisis, the states affected and the likely cost of dealing with this effectively. It estimated that it would need around $700 million.
This is a large amount of money but it pales into insignificance when set against the billions being spoken of in Europe or the billions more in the budgets of the rich states that make up what is called the developed or first world.
Thus far only about half the money needed by the UN has been received. The main aid agencies; World Vision, Action against Hunger, Save the Children and Oxfam and others like Concern, are urgently trying to raise money also. But they currently have only achieved 20% of their goal of $250 million.
The reports from the region are reminiscent of the accounts from the Ireland at the time of the Great Hunger when the dead lay at the side of roads their mouths green from eating grass.
One World Food Programme worker described what he has recently witnessed in the Sahel: ‘I’ve been to areas where some communities are reduced to eating wild plants, wild berries. Things that normally animals would eat. And they have no way of feeding themselves and their children. So you could say that technically in certain parts of the Sahel people are desperate and have nothing, literally nothing, left to eat but wild leaves.’
An aid worker with World Vision described the situation in Mauritania where many refugees from Mali have sought refuge. He said: ‘People are arriving with nothing. They’re living in camps which are just sheets on sticks with a few pots and pans. And there’s a fierce wind blowing across the desert. The heat is unbearable. And so there we’re able to see the extent of that suffering already playing out in those refugee camps.’
The reasons for this crisis are many. Climate change and drought are important factors. So too are issues like poverty, population growth, poor government and political infrastructure and governance systems, a lack of money, and the impact of several conflicts which have forced hundreds of thousands to be displaced.
It is generally accepted that a significant cause for the latter was the conflict in Libya which saw many foreign workers from the Sahel forced to return home. This has led to a loss of income into already very poor areas and increased instability.
A conflict in Mali has seen an estimated 160,000 people forced to flee their homes into neighbouring states whose resources are at breaking point. Another 200,000 Malians have fled their homes within the Mali state adding to its crisis.
All of this is contributing to an increasingly desperate situation.
In this tale of two worlds there is an onus on the richer world - despite its economic difficulties – to reach across the Mediterranean Sea and into the Sahel to provide the food and medicines and sustainable investment our neighbours need to live.
The EU, which is the biggest contributor of aid to the region needs to do more, both in direct funding and in pushing individual EU states and other countries to contribute. But there is a more fundamental issue that must be addressed – how to build indigenous sustainable economic and agricultural systems that can meet the challenges of nature and man without whole populations being put at risk of starvation and disease.