Africa's Hunger Crisis Reveals U.S. Leadership Crisis

Robert Parham


Africa's Hunger Crisis Reveals U.S. Leadership Crisis | Robert Parham, Food, Africa, Hunger, Famine, Leadership

A mother tends to her malnourished and dehydrated child in a hospital in Mogadishu, Somalia. (Photo: Stuart Price, United Nations)
Dying children in the Horn of Africa – Ethiopia, Somalia, Kenya, Uganda and Djibouti – have had to compete with a lot in America.

The death toll for Somali children under age 5 exceeds 29,000 – over the last three months – reported CBS News.

Some 1,500 Somalis arrive every day at a refugee camp in Dadaab, Kenya, which has "more than 400,000 registered refugees" and another 40,000 who are waiting to register, reported the Associated Press.

More than 11 million people in the Horn of Africa need food assistance, according to a fact sheet of the World Food Program.

"It is East Africa's worst drought in 60 years," reported BBC News. "Tens of thousands are believed to have died since the crisis began."

Famine relief officials say the region will need food assistance until August 2012.

It is the African story, so it would seem – climate change, conflict, chronic poverty and crippling starvation.

The images and stories parallel the images and stories from Ethiopia that I encountered at my first post after graduate school as the director of hunger concerns for the Christian Life Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention in January 1985.

Then, the global community reacted with horror and energetic compassion. Southern Baptists gave a record amount to hunger relief. Forty-five American rock stars recorded "We Are the World" and raised $70 million. Art Simon, founder of Bread for the World, continued to expand his influence, helping Christians connect their faith with public policy. Ron Sider's book, "Rich Christians in An Age of Hunger," first published in 1977, gained renewed attention, spreading across college campuses and being quoted in innumerable pulpits.

Twenty-seven years after the Ethiopian hunger crisis and now in the age of 24/7 news, today's hunger crisis has received coverage from TV networks and cable TV shows. But there has been no groundswell of response.

Granted, dying children in the Horn of Africa and their families have had a lot to compete with in America – the exhausting debt ceiling crisis, natters of Republican presidential candidates, wild swings in the stock market, revolution in Libya, the global financial crisis, seemingly unfixable American joblessness and underemployment, weeks of stalled negotiations between NFL owners and football players, a royal wedding in England, and mindless TV shows about housewives of this and that location.

While our focus on the serious and superficial has no doubt diverted our reactive compassion, the issue involves more than the lack of American compassion. It includes the lack of American leadership.

The Washington Post has a helpful roundtable discussion about the crisis of leadership, one that deserves the attention of EthicsDaily.com readers.

"There's a narrative that goes something like this: Emotive media images and tired tales of famine-causing drought in Somalia have created 'compassion fatigue,' a type of onlooker's paralysis that dulls the fury and utter indignation that would otherwise motivate action," wrote Astier Almedom, a Tufts University professor. "That's an insult, particularly with reference to the American public."

He said that "the lack of solutions...isn't the result of a dispassionate public. It's a failure of leadership."

Recalling the Ethiopia famine, Bill Shore, executive director of Share Our Strength, acknowledged "progress" in responding to hunger crises.

"[B]ut one thing hasn't changed: Humanitarian relief efforts still require vast amounts of private support when governments across the globe fail to respond sufficiently. That represents a chronic and collective failure of political leadership," wrote Shore.

"Humanitarian organizations have become skilled in the art of moving individuals to contribute in the immediate aftermath of an earthquake, tsunami or famine. But the greater need is for national leaders willing to use some political capital to marshal support for the long-term efforts that might prevent disaster in the first place," he said. "It is our political leaders, not our nongovernmental organizations, that are in the best position to educate citizens on the relationship between this long-term development and our economic and national security interests."

Stuart Diamond, a Wharton School business professor, observed that business skills were needed to focus on what works in foreign aid.

Noting the "lack of public education on foreign aid," Diamond wrote, "Most of the public thinks that foreign aid is at least 25 percent of the federal budget and should be more like 10 percent, not realizing the 1 percent that it is."

He, too, talked about the need for leadership.

U.S. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) contributed a post: "Energetic global leadership is a strategic imperative for America, not a favor we do for other countries. It amplifies America's voice and extends our reach. In a world growing more not less interdependent, slashing foreign aid and development investments is a formula for isolation and shrinking influence. America can't opt out of a networked world."

He pointed out that all foreign aid programs and initiatives amounted to 1 percent of the federal budget.

"This year alone we will spend approximately $700 billion on our military. The entire international affairs budget is less than one-tenth of that," wrote Kerry.

Robert Goodwin, CEO of Executives Without Borders, told stories about the foolish and transformative use of foreign aid, underscoring the centrality of leadership.

Missing from the roundtable discussion was faith community leadership to hardwire the imperatives of faith to support the necessity of governments to advance human rights and address structural causes of and solutions to hunger.

Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics.