It’s not the right time to be bringing up another humanitarian crisis. I can’t be seen as the constant bearer of bad news. People won’t want to open my emails or take my calls.
And frankly, I’m tired and overwhelmed myself. Maybe the rest of the world can deal with this new famine in East Africa; my little corner would like to please sit this one out.
But then I found myself editing a colleague’s email alert which she’s faithfully sending to her constituents, that she could end on a hopeful note such as …
As you’ll read in the LINK, “Famine is a silent killer, but it’s not unstoppable.” The reason one-million people died in the Ethiopia famine of 1984-85 was our lack of ability to provide help in time. The world has proven since then that we can save lives—save children’s lives—by raising the alarm far and wide, and by our compassionate response.
Deborah is letting her donors know—she is raising the alarm far and wide. So far, I have not. By my actions—or in this case, inaction—I am deciding that the lives of those on the edges of life don’t matter as much as not annoying my readers or distracting or discouraging those faithfully involved in other poverty issues.
And truthfully, I don’t want to expend the emotional energy to take on another crisis. I don’t feel I have it to give. But here’s the deal: I don’t get to decide when a crisis happens. I only get to choose if I am still called to be a voice for those in need who are without a voice.
“How can famine even happen in this day and age?!” That was the frustrated exclamation of Deborah’s father when she told him about the situation. Aren’t we past starving children? Didn’t we solve this after the Ethiopia Famine of 1984-85? We did our ‘bit’ back then. Didn’t we rid the world of that spectre?
The conscience and awareness of the world was changed through that catastrophe. We learned that drought does not have to lead to food shortages, and food shortages don’t have to lead to famine. Actually, nowadays it’s fairly rare. But, when it does happen, we also learned we could do something about it.
As Rich Stearns wrote: “Hunger, even lots of it, isn’t enough to earn a famine declaration. People need to be dying on a daily basis, at a rate of more than two in 10,000. That’s like 1,600 people dying every day in New York City— of starvation. Famine only sets off an alarm when a serious situation has already turned tragic.” (With over 20 million people now at risk in four countries, that is an apt analogy.)
That alarm has already been set off by the UN’s official declaration of famine in two of the countries. We simply haven’t heard about it or, like me, we’ve conveniently tuned out the early reports. I suppose I was hoping the situation would resolve itself without my attention. Who enjoys photos of emaciated children?
Deborah, who also lives in California, expressed her own frustration: “We’ve just come out of six years of drought in California, but my kids never missed a meal! The grocery store was always fully stocked.”
Why the heartbreaking disparity of consequences? Why are the causes (drought) so similar and yet the effects so tragically different? We Americans might live paycheck-to paycheck, but their vulnerability might be meal-to-meal. We benefit from at least 150 years of infrastructure investment (albeit sporadic) to reduce our vulnerability from wide fluctuations in annual rainfall. Thus, we are well insulated from feeling its impacts.
But in most places where starvation is still possible, such systems are not even available–though this is changing through low-cost catchment systems such as “water pans” and low-cost micro-drip irrigation. This is the “development imperative”—to invest in sustainable solutions that reduce vulnerability long-term and avoid such dire consequences in the future.
It works! World Vision labored in an area of northern Ethiopia called the Antsokia valley. I visited a famine camp there in early 1986, where people had been dying every day just months previously, and the huge valley had been stripped of anything that could be eaten or burned for firewood. Now the rains had returned and new projects were creating water catchments off the mountainsides, creating irrigation systems, planting fruit trees, demonstrating new farming methods. Antsokia became the learning lab that birthed World Vision’s Area Development Program (ADP) model, now used around the world.
A major drought tore across northern Ethiopia culminating in 2002 while I was visiting another part of the country. I asked one of our leaders if Antsokia too was suffering. “No,” came his answer. “Antsokia has more than enough food–in fact they are exporting it to other areas.” Antsokia had gone from being a basket-case to being the bread-basket of northern Ethiopia.
We must always ‘build back better,’ to not be satisfied solely with temporary relief measures. This time, World Vision decided that rather than only truck-in drinking water to drought areas in Ethiopia for those at risk, we would quickly shift our well-drilling operations to these areas wherever feasible—doubling the number of people we were able to reach last year with long-lasting water solutions to over 1 million people in that nation alone.
The Chinese are correct: every “crisis” is both a danger and an opportunity—an opportunity to creatively find solutions to the crisis which will not only mitigate its most tragic effects, but also reduce the vulnerability to such a crisis in the future.
There will always be droughts. But there need not always be famines. In the world’s last famine, 2011, only 25% as many people perished as in 1984 (obviously, 250,000 deaths is still tragic). By faith, I believe the world is moving, albeit haltingly, toward a time “when no child will live but a few days” as the Biblical promise puts it, foretelling God’s kingdom come fully to earth.
And meantime, especially for those of faith, danger is always opportunity. There is always hope. We who agree with World Vision founder Bob Pierce’s prayer, “Let my heart be broken with the things that break the heart of God,” must actually allow our hearts to be broken—not once, but when called upon by the events of our time, by the ever-stretching question, “Who is my neighbor?”
We don’t get to pick the timing of disasters and tragedies, our own or others’. We only get to choose how to respond. Janet and I just went onlineand made a meaningful donation for the famine response. This was not a guilt-tax or a burden, but a small act of solidarity with the suffering. And—in my optimistic moments—an act of faith in the One who holds the future and is making all things new.