As she sees images coming out of drought-stricken Africa this week, Rosemary McCarney is struck by a single thought: Is she watching today’s footage or photos from 25 years ago?
Back in the 1980s, famine was sweeping across Africa and she was a volunteer at a camp in Ethiopia.
She found herself standing in a room where malnourished babies were being fed.
“One of the things that’s haunted me for all those years is how quiet it was in the feeding camp,” said McCarney, who is now the CEO of PlanCanada, an international development agency.
“A room full of babies should be noisy, crying or laughing and it was just quiet because they couldn’t. They were just listless. That profound silence has just always stayed with me.”
Global society responded loudly to the crisis of the 1980s, culminating in a massive rock concert called Live Aid, held simultaneously in the United States and United Kingdom.
The question is whether the world is still singing the same tune.
Earlier Wednesday, the United Nations declared that an official famine has struck parts of Somalia, and it’s likely the same declaration will be made about parts of Kenya and Ethiopia in the coming days.
It is the most severe point on a five-tiered scale used by international agencies to assess food security.
According to the UN, it means acute malnutrition rates among children exceed 30 per cent, more than two people per every 10,000 die per day, and people are not able to access food and other basic necessities.
Aid groups say the Canadian government should pledge at least $40 million in aid for the millions of people affected.
International Co-Operation Minister Bev Oda is in Kenya to see first hand the refugee camps now swelling with people fleeing ongoing conflict in Somalia. She’s expected to make a funding announcement on Friday.
Canada has already given $22 million in humanitarian aid to the region so far this year, with half of that allocated specifically to Somalia, Kenya and Ethiopia.
But Oxfam Canada is calling on Oda to up the ante.
“Canada was one of the first with money into the pipeline and supporting important programs there,” said Oxfam’s Executive Director Robert Fox.
“But faced with the scale, we would hope that Canada would be able to contribute generously.”
Oxfam says the appropriate amount for Canada to give is about four per cent of the unfilled portion of the UN’s call for $1.8 billion in aid to stave off further crisis.
UN officials said Wednesday they need an immediate $300 million to get through the next two months.
Aid efforts in Somalia have been hampered by the refusal of armed groups fighting against the current Somali government to let international aid workers into the country.
But last week, the main group, al-Shabab, said it would start allowing some aid to get through.
Still, the drought has spread beyond those borders, affecting people in Ethiopia and Kenya as well.
The UN food agency will hold a meeting in Rome next week to discuss a internationally co-ordinated approach to the crisis.
“We’re hoping that people aren’t waiting for photo ops to make announcements, or waiting for summitry in order to put something on the table. Because too often, what we’ve seen is they have their conference, they make their pledges and they walk away and the cheques don’t arrive,” said Fox.
The response to the 1980s famine still resonates. The Live Aid concert is thought to be the precursor to today’s multi-celebrity fundraising events.
But there has been a documented downside.
In the years after the concert, critics also suggested it resulted in the area being flooded with journalists and inexperienced NGOs being exploited by political factions on the ground, rendering the estimated $230 million raised less than effective.
The fear among Canadian agencies is donors will think there’s no point in giving any more money.
“I hope people don’t say, ugh, Africa again,” said McCarney.
“That’s just not a fair or reasonable response. There has been so much focus in Africa over the last 25 years in terms of countries that have democratic elections, in terms if literacy levels, in terms of child-mortality levels . . . there’s been huge progress.”