In the build up to the July 2 2016 federal election in Australia, the Australian Council for International Development (ACFID), peak body for Australia’s international NGOs, published a series of articles in support of Australian aid. I contributed two articles from an African perspective. This is the second one, published 30 June 2016.
As the Australian Government’s latest harsh aid cuts come into effect, including axing almost all aid for Africa, Anglican Overseas Aid Advisor Phillip Walker describes a visit to Victoria Falls and last week to Mozambique where people are battling to survive one of the continent’s most severe droughts.
Australian NGOs have long supported people in Africa and their governments to manage disasters. As a result they are much better at dealing with extreme events today. Still, a series of severe weather events and ongoing conflict has meant they’re still struggling to cope just as Australia.
East and Southern Africa has been hit with a series of wild weather events, intensified by global warming. In 2014-15, the southern region and the Horn of Africa were inundated with torrential downpours and destructive floods. People were just recovering from flood impact when drought hit.
The Afar region in north-eastern Ethiopia is a harsh desert populated by nomadic pastoralists. Once again the seasonal rains have failed. An old man looks despairingly into the distance, searching for the grass that has failed to grow. “The weather is crazy. It does not know what it is doing anymore,” he tells me. Tens of thousands of cattle have died, destroying the subsistence lifestyles of many families. Fortunately, few people have died, so far.
In December last year I was in Zambia and with a group of work colleagues, as people do, we went to view Victoria Falls. Renowned for being a roaring mass of water (the locals call it Mosi-oa-Tunya, The Smoke That Thunders) we were shocked to see bare rock with the flow reduced to just one corner.
Last week I was in Mozambique. Summer rains have failed and the next rains are not due until December. Strands of maize have withered and fallen to the ground. Families can be seen scrambling through fields for remnants. One woman tells me a story I have often heard, of the fear from not knowing how her family will survive. “We had stored maize which we ate after the floods destroyed our crops,” she says.
This is now the worst drought in Africa since the 1980’s. Unlike the disasters of the 1980s deaths have been few because governments are now better resourced to assist their own populations. However, their ability to continue with assistance is wearing down.
As a result, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) says in East and Southern Africa over 50 million people are lacking food, and there is $2.4 billion shortage in funds for emergency relief. In Ethiopia alone 10.2 million people need food aid.
In February, the Australian Ambassador to Ethiopia Mark Sawers told me that Australia had contributed $10 million directly to Ethiopian drought relief. Mark is rightly proud of Australia’s contribution. Yet, compared the past Australia has contributed far less to help Ethiopia. A 1984 UN report said in that year Australia donated $10.75 million to the Ethiopian drought. In todays terms that is more than $30 million.
Australia and Africa have ties going back a long way. Last year Australia celebrated 50 years of relations with Ethiopia. There are Australian NGO’s who have operated in Africa for over half a century. Business and trade links beneficial to Australia go back to the 1800’s.
Previously Australian aid has made significant contribution to relieving the impact of natural disasters. It also supported development programs, usually done by the NGO community, which improved people’s standards of living and increased their resilience to natural disasters.
Yet in the past three years Australia has axed almost its entire aid program in Africa, the world’s poorest continent.
The loss of this support has had a detrimental effect on people’s lives. Rather, than long-term assistance from one of the world’s wealthiest countries providing fertile ground for progress, Australian aid to Africa has become a trickle, like the drought stricken Mosi-oa-Tunya.