20 MILLION People Across Four Countries Face Starvation and Famine: Where’s the Justice?

it's time we do more

A World Food Program helicopter delivers relief as an onlooker waits in Jonglei State, South Sudan. (Photo: Maciej Moskwa/ZUMA Press/Newscom)

The UN Humanitarian chief Stephen O’Brien has voiced his concerns for what he calls “the largest humanitarian crisis since the creation of the United Nations.” Last month, the UN has declared a state of famine in South Sudan. Officially declared famines hadn’t occurred worldwide in six years. Now, Nigeria, Yemen and Somalia are facing the same fate.

O’Brien urges for immediate financial aid and estimates $4.4 bn (£3.6 bn) is needed before July to allay the suffering and avert disaster. In the last month alone 4.9 million people received food assistance, but it is not enough. Last week, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres already pleaded for an additional $825 million for the next 6 months to help 5.5 million people in Somalia. According to O’brien, in Somalia alone nearly one million children under the age of five will be “acutely malnourished” this year. In Yemen, child-malnutrition has increased by 200% in the last 2 years.

Speaking to the Security Council, the UN Humanitarian chief said, “We stand at a critical point in history. Already at the beginning of the year we are facing the largest humanitarian crisis since the creation of the United Nations. Now, more than 20 million people across four countries face starvation and famine.

Human lives are lost and livelihoods destroyed.  If we don’t act now, many more will die from hunger, thirst and illnesses.

How Can Famine Still Exist?

The main cause for the shortage of food is conflict (often invigorating pre-existing problems) and broken supply chains. Most people in these economically underdeveloped countries are farmers; the war disrupts agriculture and limits their means of distribution.  Airstrikes destroying the roads in order to hinder soldiers – the same roads that are used by civilians and food-trucks. Due to import restrictions these countries already have a bad competitive position on the world market, and their partaking is further limited by the increasing inflation. Droughts cause crops and livestock to die, which is not only a direct loss of much needed supplies, but takes away the little guarantee of future resources.

These factors re-enforce each other and bring about a widespread lack of food, water and healthcare services, which result in starvation and people getting severely ill. Diseases make hunger even more dangerous and disturbingly intensifies the impact of famine and drought. What is worse, much of these diseases are preventable (it is said that in Yemen alone a child dies every 10 minutes from preventable diseases). E.g. One disease that claims many victims is cholera, with its main symptoms being dehydration and diarrhoea. This disease can be easily cured by hydration and antibiotics. But since half of the healthcare facilities are no longer in service (i.e. destroyed by bombings or due to lack of the needed materials), many people (especially children) still die unnecessarily from diseases that should not be able to pose a threat in a world where medicine is this developed. Having people die from starvation and preventable diseases on such a large scale couldn’t possibly be called just, yet not all political bodies are eager to provide the much needed financial support.

Global Distributive Justice

The declaration of Famine by the UN does not put binding legal obligations on any organisation or government, but we can argue that the massive numbers and great pressure is enough reason to state that we have a moral obligation of justice to respond to these disastrous facts.

What these facts essentially boil down to are matters of global distributive justice; the way the burdens and benefits of our lives are shared.  There are different ways of interpreting what constitutes a just distribution, but most people would at the very least agree with the ‘minimalist account’. This view puts the bar quit low, suggesting we are only morally responsible to grant people access to conditions satisfying a minimally decent life. This is the view incorporated in the Declaration of Human Rights, namely that everyone should be able to cope with their basic human needs (food & water, healthcare, shelter) on the basis of our shared human dignity. As the figures clearly show, these minimal standards are far from being met, which is enough justification for the moral claim that we ought to act on our global duties of justice.

Apathetic Attitude

There is a difference between what we call negative duties (basically the ‘no-harm principle’) and positive duties: the notion that we should actively help those in need.  Most people consider negative duties quit stringent, but the positive duties don’t seem to us to be that firm and we are not as easily moved to act upon our duty of assistance. However, when it comes to basic needs (or rather, human lives) the difference in immediacy seems to fade. Think of the famous thought-experiment by Peter Singer of the ‘Drowning Child in the Pond’; what is the ethical (and economical) difference in saving a child’s life by jumping in the pond and carrying him out of the water (simultaneously ruining your brand new suit), and saving a child’s life by donating money for vaccines? Whilst most people wouldn’t hesitate to save a child who’s drowning in front of them, we are less moved by the same kinds of tragedy happening from afar.

A plausible explanation for this discrepancy is that we are morally moved by our emotional response (as Hume argues). These emotional responses tend to be greater when it concerns less people that are near or similar to us (i.e. someone that we can identify with). When the numbers are this massive, and the people are far away, it is almost impossible for us to comprehend the sadness and suffering afflicted. But the facts are real, and the devastating effects are very much felt by those on site.

Grant The Request!

Obviously, the scope of distributive justice is far greater than merely economic issues. However, many of the problems described have some roots in the economical dimension (such as justice in trade and providing material assistance). By providing financial aid, as well as other collective and organised efforts, the global community could severely alleviate a great part of the suffering in Yemen, Somalia, South Sudan and Nigeria and limit the humanitarian crisis that is destroying so many lives.

If one recognises the facts presented above, the members of the international community are left with two possibilities: either they recognise the presented facts and accept the moral reasons to act on their duty of assistance, or they accept the picture but derive their actual motivation from elsewhere. In both cases, one has to conclude that in principle we could do more to stop a massive number of people from starving to death. And it is hard to find convincing reasons why we shouldn’t.

About Carline Klijnman 9 Articles
Dutch student in Humanistic Studies, specializing in ethics and political philosophy.

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