Transform systems to avert future humanitarian disasters like in East Africa

  • Date: 13/07/2022
  • Author: Karol Balfe

Right now, 20 million citizens from Kenya, Somalia, and Ethiopia in East Africa are facing severe hunger due to cumulative effects of different shocks, notably climate change; internal conflicts; the war in Ukraine’s detrimental impact on food and fuel accessibility; the socio-economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic; and destructive desert locusts.

Communities, and particularly women, girls, and young people, face a combination of skyrocketing food prices, erratic weather patterns for agriculture, protracted conflict, public sector cuts, and debt. A recent ActionAid survey found that, faced with soaring food and fuel prices, women are faced with unimaginable choices, such as taking their children out of school to be able to afford to provide at least one meal a day for their families.

This comes in the context of an unfair debt crisis that means governments in East Africa are also faced with unimaginable choices. Countries in East Africa are spending on average 36% of tax revenue on repaying debt, which means governments have less money to invest in public services, such as health, education, emergency preparedness and response. Additionally, underinvestment in public education is undermining the development, human rights and future of young people.

This unfair and unjust debt burden limits socio-economic growth and development. ActionAid research from 2020 showed how Kenya was spending more than three times as much on external debt repayments than on health.

Unbelievably, across the globe, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) is advising governments to introduce more austerity measures, despite evidence that this harms or undermines economic recovery, pushing more people into poverty. This is particularly devastating for East Africa. Unstable economies mean that governments spend less on public services (that are just recovering from the impact of the covid-19 pandemic), including social safety nets. This is unacceptable and is hurting local communities, particularly women and young people.

Ireland can use its influence at the IMF to counter the austerity policies and cuts to public spending currently being imposed across Africa. The IMF has been pushing for austerity, either as loan conditions or as coercive advice, amongst countries that are reeling from the negative economic effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. Public sector spending cuts increase poverty and inequality and drive more hunger on the continent, as well as undermining progress on health, education, gender and other Sustainable Development Goals.

The continent of Africa loses over US$50 billion annually to illicit financial flows, according to one report from the African Union and the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa. Drivers of illicit financial flows include harmful tax practices by multinational corporations, overly generous tax incentives, corruption, and criminal activities. Ireland must ensure that its own tax system does not allow multinational corporations and others to avoid paying tax in Africa. A new and more robust spillover analysis of our tax system is required, as well as addressing known tax avoidance mechanisms such as the “Single Malt” highlighted last year by Christian Aid.

This crisis in debt is compounded by the climate crisis, with East Africa experiencing one of the most severe droughts in memory. Countries, like those in East Africa, with low levels of carbon emissions, are on the frontline of climate change and are facing unprecedented levels of hunger.

Underpinning this is the reality that the current food system is degrading our soil, leaving us more vulnerable to climate change and damaging the planet. Chemical fertilisers, a key component of industrialised farming systems, require large amounts of fossil fuels for their production and contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. We need policies that invest in smallholder farmers, both here and in our overseas aid programmes, with a special attention to the needs and contribution of women farmers who produce around 70% of Africa’s food and a large-scale adoption of agroecology. Agroecological farming approaches, which use natural and locally available materials to build soil fertility and soil organic matter offer real benefits to farmers, healthy food to citizens, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, reduce soil and water pollution, and increase the sustainability of food systems.

Political responses must focus on transforming global economic and food systems- and Ireland must be part of this.

Ireland must act now, not just with much needed funding for those currently on the brink of starvation, but by looking at our policies and practices more broadly to see where we can use our influence to seek this transformation. Ireland also needs to act now to lower its carbon emissions, ensure adequate funding for loss and damage in the poorest counties and also prepare for the impact that changing weather patterns will have around the globe and here in Ireland. We need to transform our global food and agricultural systems to protect food prices, promote food sovereignty and sustain the planet.

We currently have an active appeal for the East Africa Food Crisis, learn more.

Image caption: Nimco Mohamud Ali, 21, at her home in a village where she lives with her children in Somaliland. Photographer Credit: Khadija Farah/ActionAid

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