|Rwanda, Sudan and beyond: lessons from Africa (7/4/2004)|
'USAID [which has stopped shipments of food aid to Sudan in response to sudan requiring labelling for GM content]... stated that "the potential humanitarian consequences of this pipeline break for the needy in Sudan cannot be overemphasised".
'Food aid for people who can no longer feed themselves and are in desperate need is obviously essential, but why should this assistance be made conditional upon acceptance of an agricultural strategy whose benefits are highly questionable?'
Rwanda, Sudan and beyond: lessons from Africa
On the tenth anniversary of genocide in Rwanda, ethnic cleansing and mass murder continues in Sudan. Will international attention come too late to prevent further tragedy in Africas largest country? Meanwhile, even greater loss of life from sources other than direct violence is neglected. New thinking and action are needed.
In Britain, train crashes kill on average one or two dozen people every year. Road traffic accidents kill dozens every week.
But a single fatal train wreck can occupy the media for days if not weeks afterwards while far greater carnage on the roads is routinely ignored, even though, mile for mile, rail is six times safer than road.
Something similar happens in popular perception of genocide and big acts of mass murder on the one hand, and steady extinction of much greater numbers from less sensational but no less preventable causes on the other hand. A reason for this may be that the drama, the singular nature of an event, is easier to perceive, if not to comprehend, than the enormity of a continual process.
So, for example, the situation in the Darfur region of western Sudan is forcing its way up the international news agenda in Britain and elsewhere. Here, it is reported, Sudanese government forces and Arab militias (Janjaweed) are killing, raping or driving from their homes some 700,000 black African civilians. On 2 April a report by New York-based rights group Human Rights Watch accused the Sudanese government of complicity in crimes against humanity, and a senior United Nations official urged the world community to pressure the Sudan government and rebels to stop the abuses; the government dismissed the claims as "a heap of lies".
The events in Sudan come to global attention on the 10th anniversary of the Rwanda genocide, in which some 800,000 civilians were murdered in one of the most efficient genocides in history. Rwanda experienced one of those "train crashes". The world may witness another in Sudan (although perhaps with fewer deaths, and different in other important respects).
Meanwhile, the car accidents just go on all the time. Every year, 6.3 million children die of hunger around the world. That is more than 120,000 needless deaths every week, or 17,000 per day. As Mary Robinson, former United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights, puts it, "in each case its a personal tragedy". But because the tragedies are seldom concentrated in one place, and because they happen all the time, each individual case tends to be less visible in the media.
The 1994 genocide in Rwanda was extraordinary for many reasons, not least its speed. Working largely by hand, the highly-organised genocidaires worked three to five times faster even than the Nazis, who had the technology of one of the worlds most advanced industrial economies at their disposal for their project
Meanwhile, the default settings of the world's economic and political systems allow for around 24,000 needless deaths from hunger every day (about 17,000 children and 7,000 adults). For many, including Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, this is a "conscience shocking" state of affairs. Hunger, he says, is "the greatest weapon of mass destruction".
How to address this reality is, arguably, the central global challenge of modern times. To be effective, responses need to be multifaceted...
A central element in any effective approach is improving the ability of the world's poorest people to feed themselves. And better agricultural technology (for example new rice hybrids such as the one recently created by a China-Sierra Leone partnership) will play an important role.
But the benefits of genetically-modified crops, frequently touted as a solution to global hunger, are not yet evident. Genetic modification (GM) has not delivered success in the case of sweet potatoes, while hybrids developed with established techniques have produced useable varieties that deliver essential nutrition. The supposed environmental benefits of GM crops are also in doubt. According to reports, eight years of planting genetically-modified maize, cotton and soya beans in the United States has significantly increased the amount of herbicides and pesticides used.
In this context, an 11 March 2004 announcement that the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) had stopped all food aid shipments to Sudan because the Sudanese government had asked that US commodities be certified free of genetically-modified organisms, looks strange.
As a result, the United Nations warned, Sudans supply of food reserves for millions of people living on the edge of starvation would be exhausted by April or May. USAID itself stated that "the potential humanitarian consequences of this pipeline break for the needy in Sudan cannot be overemphasised".
Food aid for people who can no longer feed themselves and are in desperate need is obviously essential, but why should this assistance be made conditional upon acceptance of an agricultural strategy whose benefits are highly questionable?