Leading article: Foot-dragging while people starve

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It is always difficult to know what to make of reports of imminent famine in Africa. Aid agencies are talking of 10 million people facing critical shortages of food. Cynics, by contrast, insist that most aid is wasted by corrupt governments. We gave last time, they say, and nothing has got any better.

The truth is that a lot of things have got better, including the early warning systems put in place to prevent repetitions of the disastrous African famines of the past. The official definition of a famine is that 30 per cent of a population must be wasted through malnutrition and two people out of every 10,000 must die each day. At half that level the categorisation is a merely "humanitarian emergency", which is what has been declared in parts of Ethiopia, Somalia and northern Kenya. That means things are very bad for a lot of people but it is not too late to avert the catastrophe of famine.

In the past, the international community often waited until too late to respond. Only when the TV cameras could picture skeletal children dying in large numbers was there action, which came too late for as many as a million people in Ethiopia in 1985.

People are on the move in Somalia because of the civil war there. But also because rich nations have only given the World Food Programme 40 per cent of what it needs to keep people fed. For East Africa in general, the WFP is facing a $300m shortfall. Britain has just pledged £38m towards that. Those starving in Africa now need to hear comparable pledges from the usual foot-dragging nations, France, Italy and Germany. Perhaps this time China could give. Or even the oil-rich Arabs who, before Ramadan begins at the end of this month, could prevent extreme hunger turning to deadly starvation among their fellow Muslims in the Horn of Africa. Only that way can the "f word" remain unspoken.

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