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Oxfam ED Barry Coates in Horn of Africa

Put people before politics

By Barry Coates

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Looking out from my room in Nairobi, it is hard to believe that only a few hundred kilometres to the north, there are over four hundred thousand people crowded into a refugee camp, having fled from the 21st Century’s first major famine. We go to visit Dadaab camp tomorrow.

The footage on TV and across the internet has made the sight of refugees from Somalia arriving in Dadaab after harrowing journeys all too familiar. But today, when I arrived in Nairobi, I heard much more about the plight of the people we don’t see. Across northern Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia there are over 13 million people caught in this crisis. Coming from a country like New Zealand, the scale is hard to comprehend.

The deepest impact is in Somalia, a country wracked by conflict, without a functioning government for decades and without the infrastructure or services that we take for granted. And the drought is severe, the worst in 60 years for some areas. People are desperate but getting aid to the people who need it in Somalia is extremely challenging.

Today I had the privilege of meeting some of our Oxfam team and a programme officer from one of the local partner organisations that Oxfam New Zealand donors are supporting. It was inspiring to hear about this great work from such passionate people. Unfortunately, these organisations are unable to work across all areas of Somalia because they cannot get access. The difficulties were highlighted by news reports today of people killed in fighting along the border between Kenya and Somalia.

Through our partners, Oxfam is now reaching more than 750,000 people in Somalia and over 2 million across the region. But these people need additional help, and there are many more who we cannot yet reach. Oxfam is trying to raise enough funds to achieve this goal.

The scale is huge. There are over 13 million people affected by the drought and the most credible estimates say that 750,000 people are at risk of starvation as a result of this crisis. A lack of urgent action now would put the rising death toll in Somalia on the scale of Rwanda or the ongoing tragedy in Darfur. This must not be allowed to happen.

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Funding is urgent and crucial, but so is access. Twenty aid agencies, including Oxfam, published an open letter last week urging the international community to "put people's lives before politics if we are to stand any chance of aiding people suffering from the famine in Somalia."

The agencies said that while aid was getting through in many areas, "it is not at the scale needed to address the enormity of the crisis and hundreds of thousands of lives hang in the balance." They warned that with the coming rains expected to bring the threat of deadly disease, restrictions were still preventing the rapid boost in aid that was so desperately needed to save lives.

Managing this crisis without an even larger loss of life will take more money, and Oxfam is appealing for New Zealanders to be even more generous in the months ahead. But it will also need a far more intensive effort by all governments to put pressure on the warring parties to stop the fighting and allow humanitarian access. We need all-inclusive dialogue, a cessation of hostilities, unhindered passage of aid, and removal of restrictions.

It won’t be easy to achieve. But it is absolutely necessary to prevent this crisis from becoming one of the world’s major catastrophes. After the genocide in Rwanda, the world promised “never again.” Now is the time to act.


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