If you were among those living in the drought-ravaged Horn of Africa countries of Somalia, Ethiopia, Djibouti or Northern Kenyan today, which would you choose? An armoured tank, or the equivalent value of grain?
A recent UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs statement noted an estimated 12.4 million people in this region desperately need humanitarian assistance. To meet this challenge, the UN office says $2.5 billion in official food and disaster-relief aid is required.
As of last week, only about $1.22 billion had been committed.
About two months ago, the Ethiopian Defence Ministry signed a US$100-million contract with Ukrspecexport of the Ukraine for 200 T-72 tanks, according to an UKRINFORM news release.
It ranked among the largest contracts of Ukrspecexport’s 15 years of operation.
“The tanks are a qualitatively new type of military hardware, which is equipped with a modernized power plant, guided weapons and armour system,” said the release.
“For Ukraine, this contract has major economic and social importance, its implementation will improve the capacity of the Ukrainian enterprises, create jobs and increase revenues.”
The deal links Ukrainian exporters, much to their delight, with the Ethiopian Defence Ministry for years to come. The expected repair and upgrade contracts are worth millions more.
Within a month, the Ethiopian government appealed to the world community for $400 million in food aid.
No one seemed to bat an eye at this ironic twist.
Dollars have been freely given to underwrite anti-piracy patrols on the sea lanes off this coast, linking Asia and Europe via the Suez Canal, or for other perceived terrorist threats in the Horn of Africa.
But try finding money for long-term, sustainable-development projects for water conservation or reforestation in this region – or for getting wealthy countries to agree to international trade reforms that foster the conservation of fisheries for coastal villagers and to protect small agricultural producers.
Drought has afflicted the people of this region for five of the last seven years.
The current catastrophe is not a surprise.
One Guardian article last month noted more than 10 million more individuals actually suffered in 2009 from the continuing failure of the international community along with local governments to deal with the socioeconomic and political issues amplified by the climatic crisis.
The Holodomor, in Ukrainian literally “death by hunger,” marked the period in 1932-33 when, by a very conservative estimate, 2.4 million citizens of the Soviet Union, primarily in the Ukraine, starved.
A draft resolution of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe last year attributed the famine to “cruel and deliberate actions and policies of the Soviet regime.”
Amartya Sen, the Nobel laureate Indian economist, in his book Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation (1981) has argued starvation is “a function of entitlements and not food availability as such.”
How is the case of famine in the Ukraine in 1932-33, induced by Soviet policies, different from the counterproductive decisions, or the deliberate indifference of the global community to the famine in the Horn of Africa today?
In her book Totalitarianism Hannah Arendt saw the Ukrainian famine as a key point in the formation of our modern “atomized” society.
Arendt believed that our collective alienation from each other leads to indifference and inaction.
We must somehow instil a new sense of global solidarity in our communities and our governments that put people first.
The choice then between tanks or grain will be a “no brainer.”
Michael Dougherty is co-chair of the social justice committee of Sacred Heart Cathedral of Whitehorse. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.