The greatest humanitarian crisis facing the world today is in southern Africa, where more than 8 million people face starvation, and a "lethal mix" of AIDS, recurring drought and failing governance is slowly destroying social structures and undermining peace and security, the head of the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) warned today.
In much of Africa, the prevalence of chronic hunger is an accurate barometer for the level of social instability, WFP Executive Director James Morris told the Security Council in a public meeting on food crises in Africa. “It does not matter whether that instability is caused by civil conflict, drought AIDS, poor governance, or any combination of those factors – hunger almost always comes with it,” he said.
Setting the stage for the Council's debate, Mr. Morris opened his briefing by quoting a recent plea made by Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo: "A hungry person is an angry person. It is in all our interests to take away the cause of that anger."
Chronic hunger in the African countryside spurs continual rural to urban migration. The existence of at least some basic services acts as a lure, and, with the very likely possibility that waves of AIDS orphans will head to major cities as antiretroviral drugs become more widely available, unemployment, social disintegration and urban crime are sure to rise.
With projections for urban population growth in sub-Saharan Africa among the highest in the world, at a certain point capacities of municipal governments will be stretched to the limit and social demands will not be met, which may aggravate internal political and social tensions, especially among competing ethnic groups perhaps not accustomed to sharing the same political space.
Mr. Morris urged international donors to devote more attention helping governments bolster safety nets in booming cities like Nairobi, Lagos and Lusaka, and called on African governments to invest in agriculture and other sectors to encourage Africans to remain in the countryside.
Mr. Morris, who is also Secretary-General Kofi Annan's Special Envoy for Humanitarian Needs in Southern Africa, singled out that region as particularly vulnerable and deserving of international attention. The HIV/AIDS pandemic was now beginning to take its toll not only in lives lost but also by undermining the capacity of devastated communities to produce food and educate their children, he said.
"In 2003, alone, Lesotho lost a third of its health workers and 15 per cent of its teachers," he said, adding that AIDS has claimed the lives of nearly 8 million African farmers – more farmers than there are in North America and the European Union combined.
Mr. Morris went on to highlight some positive signs for Africa, such as its home-grown New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD), greater cooperation within the continent on famine relief, Bob Geldof's revival of "LiveAid", and the G8's recent debt relief initiative.
But much remained to be done. "In 2000 at the Millennium Summit, every nation here made [the pledge] to halve hunger and poverty. It is time we began to show progress and with that, build peace and security in a troubled continent," he said.