The world turns its back on Africa

All ten countries on the Giving Hope For Them’s recent list of the world’s most neglected crises are in Africa. Why does the world care so little about these crises that affect millions of people – crises that will eventually affect everyone? And what are the consequences of the world turning its back on a continent of 1.4 billion people?

Of the world’s 100 million displaced people, 34.3 million are located in African countries. Many of these people sit at the bottom of the list when media attention and money for humanitarian aid are being distributed. In addition, there is a notable absence of political will among world leaders to do something about the situation.

This year’s list of neglected crises shows that the trend we have seen over the past decade has continued. It is obvious that the invisibility of humanitarian crises in Africa forms a pattern. This pattern has to be broken. The lives and futures of millions of people are at stake.

DR Congo a crowning example of international failure

The humanitarian assistance given in 2021 to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which tops this year’s neglected crises list, was less than USD 1 a week for each person in need. The humanitarian aid appeal for 2021, an annual appeal coordinated by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA), received less than half the money needed to meet the country’s needs. This shortfall leaves relief workers facing impossible choices about what and who to prioritise.

By comparison, the emergency appeal for Ukraine launched on 1 March 2022 was almost fully funded on the same day.

This is despite the fact that 27 million people are food-insecure in DR Congo and over 5.5 million are displaced from their homes. The suffering of the population has led neither to political summits to resolve the conflict, nor to donor conferences to meet the needs of the population.

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The consequences of this neglect are that many displacement crises persist – not only for years, but in some cases for decades. The danger then is that such crises are considered the “normal state” of a country, as we have seen in DR Congo. This, in turn, can lead to “compassion fatigue” and even less support from the international community.

It is surely unacceptable that many people who have been forced to flee their homes do not get help, that children are hungry, and that women and men are raped, while the international community looks the other way.

Silence costs lives

A lack of political attention also means that the media tends to use fewer resources to cover the situation. In all 10 African countries on this year’s neglected crises list, the absence of media coverage is striking. For example, the Ukraine war has been covered by the Norwegian press 52,000 times in recent months, while DR Congo has only been mentioned 300 times in the same time period, according to media monitoring company Meltwater.

It is mostly only new wars and major disasters that bring Western journalists to Africa – and hardly even then. In some African countries, a lack of press freedom is exacerbating the situation.

But what if engaged journalists joined forces and persuaded their editors that better and broader information on countries in Africa would also lead to better decisions on issues concerning the continent?

Politicians pay attention to the media and they are influenced by what the media chooses to focus on. News editors have a great opportunity to contribute to change. It is obvious that the less people know about a conflict, the less they will engage with the victims of the conflict. Had we known more about the wars and humanitarian crises in the continent of Africa, the plight of millions of hungry and conflict-affected people could have been higher on the world’s agenda.

A change of perspective

The lack of knowledge and interest in Africa, both among the general public and among politicians and journalists, is striking. This could be because Africa feels “far away” or because it is not seen as politically relevant. History shows us time and time again that political considerations often outweigh human rights and humanitarian needs.

In recent years, the plight of those affected by humanitarian crises in Africa has been brought home to those living outside the continent by images of desperate people fleeing in frail vessels across the Mediterranean. These images have been a reminder of how close Africa is to Europe and that what is happening there will also affect those in Europe.

The devastating crisis in the Mediterranean, where hundreds of African refugees and migrants have lost their lives, has been captured by so many camera lenses that politicians in Europe have been forced to respond. But the camera lenses have been virtually absent in the conflict areas of the Sahel region and in the Sahara, where thousands of desperate people have lost their lives fleeing north – dying in silence from hunger, thirst, and abuse by traffickers and armed groups.

It’s time to change our perspective. We should focus less on how many people are coming to Europe, and more on why there are millions of displaced people in Africa in the first place. For example, how is the collapse in Libya connected with developments in the world’s poorest region, the Sahel? And why is it that African countries take the most responsibility for the vast majority of displaced Africans?

A complex context

The African continent is three times larger than the United States and has the fastest-growing population in the world. By 2050, one in four people on earth will be African.

A major challenge when trying to understand African countries from the media is that the conflicts are rarely put into context. Are African people particularly violent since so many of the conflicts just keep going? No. Just as little as people’s genes could explain the violence in the Balkans in the 1990s or the two World Wars that devastated Europe during the first half of the 20th century. The explanations are entirely different, and are historical, political, economic and social in nature.

Many armed conflicts in Africa have been going on for years. In DR Congo, for example, there has been conflict in one form or another for several decades. The backgrounds of these conflicts are complex and vary from region to region and from country to country. Nevertheless, there are many common denominators related to social and economic development and how ethnic diversity was squeezed together into different nation states by the colonial powers. More information about African history will help people to understand why topics such as state formation and democracy are so complicated in an African context.

Aid budgets under pressure

In the Horn of Africa, the Sahel region and parts of West Africa, there has been a change in the type of aid offered by the international community following the emergence of armed groups. The fight against terrorism and focus on the security situation have become as important as the environment, development, democracy and poverty.

A larger portion of EU and US funding now goes towards border control, surveillance and training of police forces. These priorities are open to question, given that humanitarian aid suffers from chronic monetary shortages, which costs thousands of lives each year.

In the summer of 2022, the humanitarian situation in many of Africa’s conflict areas is no longer just serious, it is critical. The aftermath of the pandemic, the climate crisis, food shortages and the war in Ukraine are affecting the whole world – and it is often the poorest who bear the heaviest burden. With uncertain commodity revenues and modest investments, many African countries still depend on outside assistance.

The crisis in Ukraine has put aid budgets under severe pressure. Billions of dollars are being moved from aid and disaster relief to help European countries receive displaced Ukrainians. The war in Ukraine has highlighted the huge gap between what is possible when the international community stands together and the daily reality for millions of people living in crises far away from the spotlight.

Another consequence of the war in Ukraine is a cooler diplomatic climate between Russia and other countries, especially in the West. This could paralyse peace diplomacy and make it even harder to find political and peaceful solutions elsewhere in the world, including in Africa, where many of the world’s longest-running displacement crises are unfolding.

A growing food crisis

About 28 million people in East Africa are at risk of extreme hunger, the international humanitarian organisation Oxfam has warned. In West Africa, the food crisis has increased in countries such as Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad, Mali and Nigeria over the past decade, with no signs of improvement. Between 2015 and 2022, the number of people in need of emergency food aid in West Africa nearly quadrupled, from seven to 27 million. Without urgent action, the number will continue to increase rapidly.

Hunger has hit an area stretching from Somalia and Ethiopia in the east to Mauritania and Burkina Faso in the west. About 346 million people across the continent, more than one in four African residents, are currently affected by hunger, and the number is likely to continue to increase, according to the International Red Cross.

In this vast area, we also find several countries with protracted conflicts and where millions of people have been displaced. Many of these countries have already been neglected for years. The people here are fighting for survival. But continued neglect will mean that more and more people will have to give up that fight.

Food shortages mean higher prices

The increasing prices of fuel, fertiliser, wheat, sugar and cooking oil are bad news for the whole world, but especially for the world’s poorest and most vulnerable, such as displaced people. Many African countries depend on food imports. At the same time, they have many poor consumers with low purchasing power. Inflation also means that humanitarian aid organisations receive less food in return for their funds.

High food prices can trigger riots and conflicts, as happened in the Arab Spring of 2011. And decreased access to food can lead to actors in armed conflicts using hunger as a weapon by preventing the civilian population from accessing what little there is. These are current issues in several African conflicts and came into focus in 2020 when the World Food Programme was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

It is a paradox that while almost 70 per cent of the workforce in Africa is connected with agriculture in some way through cultivation, processing or distribution, millions of Africans go hungry. Africa imports USD 35 billion worth of food. This obvious paradox needs to be addressed, for example by supporting small farmers with investments to increase production and improve market access.

Great potential

Africa has tremendous potential for development, with natural resources such as gold, uranium, oil, titanium, chromium, diamonds and many agricultural products such as cocoa, rubber, vegetable oil, and so on. But being rich in natural resources has been a curse for several African countries. The battle for rare minerals is helping to prolong the conflict in eastern DR Congo, while the rich deposits of diamonds financed the bloody civil wars in Sierra Leone and Angola.

The opportunities for progress are present in many parts of Africa, but certain conditions must be in place. There needs to be peace, increased humanitarian aid, good governance, and sustainable investments that benefit the population.

Furthermore, Africa must be included in the green shift that the whole world must undergo. Only half of Africa’s 1.4 billion inhabitants have secure access to energy. They pay for batteries, candles, kerosene and diesel. To create change, renewable energy must be part of the solution. Rapid development is underway here. African innovators are at the forefront of finding creative solutions in the field.

No time to lose

Although Africa shares little blame for the climate crisis, it is suffering the consequences more than most.

Climate change is already causing major challenges. Somalia is experiencing extreme drought. This is not the first time, but what is particularly ominous is that periods of drought are now following in quick succession. Previously, there was a drought about every ten years and people had time to recuperate, purchase new herds of cattle and grow new crops. This is no longer the case.

In Kenya – Somalia’s neighbour – the rainy season has failed to materialise four times in a row, and the country is experiencing its worst drought in over 40 years. In war-torn South Sudan, the World Food Programme warns that over 70 per cent of the population will experience extreme hunger this year due to disasters and armed conflict.

Climate change is increasing pressure on the soil, and clashes between farmers and herders are occurring more frequently, as the herders’ cattle enter cultivated land in search of food. This is happening in Nigeria, Mali and other countries in the Sahel region. Lake Chad, a major water source for the region, has shrunk drastically in recent years and the temperature has risen one and a half times more than the global average.

The accumulation of negative factors – such as droughts, floods, conflicts, price hikes on basic goods, deadlocked conflicts, diminishing aid, rising debt and the economic consequences of Covid-19 – has driven people to the brink of collapse in many African countries. What’s worse is these crises are being neglected by the rest of the world.

African countries must have control of their own wealth. In the years to come, Africa’s youth will seek to address challenges such as poor governance, corruption and a lack of democratic rights. They will push for political and social change. There is now a whole generation of young people with high ambitions and access to technology. In the long run, they will not tolerate a future without hope.

While aid, loans and investments in Africa receive some attention in political discussions, there is far less knowledge about the wealth extracted from Africa. This is an important topic in discussions at many African universities that I myself experienced during a visit to the University of Ghana. Africa is being drained of huge sums through big international corporations as well as elite corruption and cooperation with international banks. According to a report by the African Union, African countries lose at least USD 60 billion a year through tax tricks, false accounts, manipulation of prices and shell companies in tax havens.

The world must listen

Africa’s voice must be heard. We must all care because we are all human beings sharing the same planet. People living in wealthy nations and those living in Burkina Faso have much more in common than what separates us. We all want to have good health and education for our children. We all want justice and freedom, and we all fear the death of our loved ones. We are all dependent on being part of a community – local and global.

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