Since September 11, the world's obsession with the war on terror has pushed many issues of crisis proportion onto the back burner. In particular, social and political upheaval on the continent of Africa has been largely ignored. (There was little mention of it during George Bush's quick trip to Africa in July.) We hear daily media reports of insecurity in Iraq, but very little coverage of the challenges facing African nations.
Reports released in June by the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Food Programme (WFP) warn that the need for food aid in southern Africa remains substantial despite efforts in 2002 to avert famine. Food production in Zimbabwe has dropped by 50 percent as a result of the debilitating drought and economic and social turmoil, and 5.5 million of the country's people are hungry. And, nearly two decades after the musical fundraiser Live Aid, around 14 million Ethiopians-one fifth of the entire population-will require food aid this year.
By any measure, this is a crisis. So where are the stories? Have the media simply become used to the idea of a starving continent, as suggested by WFP head James Morris? A more depressing thought might be that the epidemic of ignorance surrounding Africa in the Western world has, in fact, hastened that continent's downward spiral. What Africa needs from the international diplomatic community are sustained engagement and a can-do attitude. What it gets instead are floundering rescue efforts that usually come too late.
Take the case of the Democratic Republic of Congo. The conflict in the Congo has raged for five years, causing displacement, economic collapse, malnutrition, and disease. It claimed the lives of approximately 3.3 million between 1998 and 2002, making it the deadliest conflict since World War II. Every passing day brings the death of another thousand people or so. A small UN peacekeeping unit has been there since 1999, but in a country that is more than five times the size of Iraq, it has had little effect. Reports of genocidal attacks in the Ituri district in eastern Congo spurred the Security Council in May to authorize the deployment of a multinational force to the main town of Bunia. But, this force was given a minimal geographic mandate (limited to Bunia, its airport, and camps for displaced persons) and a strict departure date of September 1, calling into question its ability to achieve anything beyond maintaining the status quo.
Very simply put, these kinds of piecemeal approaches to ongoing crises in Africa are destined to fail, especially when they come so late in the game. If the only time any attention is paid to African affairs is after millions die, it is no wonder that hopelessness about the continent's future seems so pervasive. The first step to changing this course would be consistent media coverage of political and social developments across the African continent. That could at least foster the foresight that is needed to encourage policy prescriptions that do more than simply postpone disaster.
Worldwatch Staff Researcher