Action, Please, on Famine


Somalis carrying their belongings make their way to the refugee camp in Mogadishu. The United Nations estimates that more than 11 million people across East Africa need food aid because of a long-running drought.

October 30, 2011

Esha Chhabra

It’s a familiar sight. What can I do about it? It’s happened before. It’s going to keep on happening, it’s not going to stop because of my little contribution, plus, I have such a hectic schedule. I don’t have the time.

I can understand all of the above, except for the last one.

For the last two to three months, we’ve heard snippets about the crisis in the Horn of Africa, the drought in the region that’s led millions to flee their homes and farms in search of food. Thousands of children have passed away in the process. Images of mothers carrying their children, in a skeletal state, testing the limits of the human body, have stirred us and connected us to people enduring a life far removed from ours.

Currently, the solution is to get food to these people, provide them access to clean water, prevent disease from erupting, determine a way to deliver aid in a politically conflicted zone and address their health needs.

But, we don’t have time. It’s an afterthought.

Rather, we need gimmicky solutions to get our attention. The ONE organization run by Bono, U2’s lead singer, put together a video titled “The “F word,” filled with a starry cast of celebrities to get our attention. (The “F word” is famine, by the way).

UNICEF has partnered with Threadless, the Chicago-based online T-shirt company, to produce T-shirts, showcasing the different kinds of aid reaching these individuals — a mosquito for malaria protection, a worm for deworming tablets, a peanut for food aid (that often includes a peanut butter-like substance). Again, this is to get our attention.

While I appreciate all these efforts, I sometimes wonder why we need such gimmicky promotions to get our attention. Aren’t the harrowing images, the distraught stories of desperate families enough? Aren’t the reports from journalists enough to get us to stop, take a minute, read a story and act on it?

We’re surrounded by tablets, phones, computers and laptops — all carry these stories. But can we not take a minute to read something of human importance? Yes, the Horn of Africa story is affected by environmental concerns, unstable politics, bad economics and poor agriculture.

But, right now, put that aside. It’s a human story. And it deserves not only our attention, but our action.

Rather than bombarding you with statistics of the number of children killed, the families starved and the stream of refugees, I’d like to share with you the story of Backpack Farms, which saw immense potential in small farms and has been working on a solution, not a Band-Aid, for the region.

Ranging from two to five acres, these local farms come to Backpack to learn about better cultivation practices and water management because famines are often closely tied to poor management of food resources and water.

Backpack Farms started in south Sudan to address the root problem — ill-equipped farmers. So far, it has provided training to more than 13,000 farmers in the region, especially in Kenya. And it’s not been for free.

To make sure that the farmers who come to the program are interested and willing to take it seriously, it charges a nominal $1 for a day’s worth of training and a bag full of farming goodies (i.e. drought-resistant seeds, water tank, simple irrigation device).

With the help of mobiles, the Backpack team can also send farmers text messages and short videos with farming tips and news. The idea is to educate, educate, educate so that they become self-sufficient, not needing such aid in the long run.

Small farms are the backbone of many developing nations, be it in Africa, Asia or Latin America, and often their challenges are unaddressed because, well, they’re small and disorganized. But if grouped together, they tend to create the majority of the agricultural base in developing nations like Sudan or Somalia.

That’s what makes Backpack’s work so pertinent and potentially powerful. Plus, organizations like this one will continue working in these areas after the spotlight has been dimmed, after the news outlets have found another story.

It’s important for us, in moments of such crisis, to seek out not only the international players, such as U.N. agencies, but also these small enterprises. If we keep paying attention to these innovators, supporting their work, then we can help avoid larger catastrophic events like the one in Somalia.

Yet, this takes time, something that seems so elusive today. However, organizations like Backpack don’t tend to have the marketing (or financial) muscle to do gimmicks to capture our attention.

So, they rely on us to find time to find stories of a human element. Whether it’s the one in the Horn of Africa right now or that of the ongoing flooding in Pakistan or the next big humanitarian effort.

Find the human element. Find the story that moves you. And find the time to nurture it — financially, vocally or physically. Somewhere along the way, you’ll also begin finding solutions. That’s the most powerful feeling; making the effort worth your time.

This originally appeared in the Ventura County Star


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