Africa lags behind other regions not only in terms of development aid but also when it comes to emergency relief, according to the United Nations’s top humanitarian official.
“It is one of the biggest imbalances of our time — compassion,” undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs Jan Egeland told the Forward in a phone interview. “We are setting incredible world records in generosity and in effectiveness for tsunami relief efforts,” and yet in Africa, “we have virtually no money to undertake our operations.”
While most of the $1 billion emergency relief allocated for the Asian regions hit by the tsunami in 2005 already has been disbursed, none of the 14 crises zones in Africa has received more than 30% of the money called for by the U.N.
Egeland, an outspoken Norwegian who chided the Western world and especially the Bush administration for being “stingy” in the wake of the tsunami that devastated Southern Asia in late December 2004, said that every 10 months Congo had a death toll equivalent to the tsunami.
“But I must say that we collected less money in the past 10 years in Congo than we did in the past 10 weeks for the tsunami,” Egeland said.
He acknowledged that Africa had an “image problem” linked to corruption and the “impression that it sucks money like a black hole.”
Egeland said the humanitarian community was partly to blame for failing to provide a compelling tableau that would trigger more action for what he calls a “winning case.” One remedy, he said, is to offer concrete examples to show the modest cost of improving the situations. For instance, he noted that Americans spend more each year on chewing gum than is needed to feed the poor and prevent death by starvation.
Egeland said he was nevertheless optimistic because the tsunami had prompted more public and private generosity, which could end up helping Africa. He added there was no doubt that Western interest in helping Africa was growing, including within the Bush administration.
“People understand that you cannot isolate yourself and sit in a wealthy corner of the world and see mass suffering elsewhere,” he said.