Leading article: Give a day's pay for Africa

Sunday 23 October 2011 03:12

Today we launch our campaign to save lives in Somalia. We are asking our readers, their friends and families to join with our senior staff and pledge one day's pay to charity. Our argument is simple. An avoidable human catastrophe is claiming 250 lives a day and we have a moral duty to do what we can.

This is the worst famine in East Africa for more than 60 years and half a million children may die if the aid effort is not stepped up quickly. Donations can make a difference, and so we urge everyone to give more than they first thought.

Here, perhaps, we should deal with the objections commonly made to development aid. It is right and justified that people should be sceptical about whether the philanthropy of rich nations can save lives in the longer run. Mistakes have certainly been made in the past, and the well-meaning efforts of good people have sometimes enriched local elites or made problems in poor countries worse.

Many people might say that we gave to Live Aid to help starving people in East Africa in 1985, but that nothing has changed except that the population has increased and there are more people vulnerable to famine. On the contrary, although some of the early Live Aid effort might have been misdirected, a great deal was learnt. Ethiopia has been, on balance, a success story. The country is now one of the stronger economies in Africa.

Somalia is another story. Its agonies reveal that, challenging as droughts are in sub-Sahelian Africa, the deeper problem is civil war. It is the conflict between warlords, theocratic militia, separatists and what is left of the national government that makes it so hard to cope with the second consecutive failure of crops, and is driving millions of refugees into camps on the Kenyan border.

The political crisis has been a long-term problem, going back to the 1980s and the uprisings against Siad Barre, the country's ruler who was ousted in 1991. Since then, Somalia has in effect lacked a central government. Its status as a "failed state" has worried Western governments, leading to policies that see the problem as military rather than agricultural. In fact, they are the same thing. What Somalia needs is a political settlement.

All the lessons of past aid programmes apply in Somalia. We now know that the most important thing is to end conflict. When that has been achieved it is possible to spend more on schools and clinics; secure private property rights; attract investors; promote free trade within Africa; and ensure that the poor share in economic growth. Until the conflict is ended, all those things are hard or impossible, especially when parts of Somalia are controlled by al-Shabaab, the Islamist militia which has expelled most Western aid agencies.

However, this does not mean it is pointless to get food, water, medicine and shelter to the refugees and the starving in those parts of Somalia that can be reached. If we can provide only emergency relief while trying to solve the political problems that are the underlying cause of famine, that is still worth while.

The other objections to aid are, The Independent on Sunday hopes, easier to meet. It used to be alleged that donations would be embezzled, or end up in the hands of corrupt governments, or be swallowed up in charities' administration or advertising costs. None of those is the case today. Donations through the Disasters Emergency Committee go to charities working on the ground. The watchdog body Charity Facts advises that between 5 and 13 per cent of charities' total spending should be on management. Four out of six DEC members and partners active in Somalia report that they spend 12 per cent or less on administration.

We understand that this is a hard period for many people in this country, but this is one of those times when the disparity in quality of life between rich countries and poor is so stark that the moral imperative becomes, we hope, irresistible. This is about our values as people and as a nation. Britain has a proud record of giving more than other countries, and we should see it through. The Independent on Sunday put the Somalian famine on its front page on 3 July; we have devoted a lot of space to it throughout the media excitement over phone hacking (and indeed today, despite the horror of Norway); we should see it through.

Please text Indy to 70000 to donate £5 to the Disasters Emergency Committee, as many times as you think you should, and fill in the form on page 26 to allow the charities to reclaim the tax you have paid on that money.

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