OTTAWA — Canada’s help is needed and should show leadership to avoid widespread famine looming in West Africa, international aid group Oxfam urged Thursday.
At a news conference in Ottawa on Thursday, Oxfam Canada head Robert Fox said Canada needs to lead the international response to a food shortage that affects more than 15 million people in seven countries.
“Canada has an opportunity and an obligation,” said Fox. “The early warning systems are working. We need action.”
At a time when the United States and the European Union are focused on domestic issues, Fox said the Harper government should convene an international conference to raise money for the region.
He warned that the price of inaction might be a famine much like the one that struck the Horn of Africa in 2011, which created millions of refugees in Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, and Kenya.
“(Canada) has to ensure that we don’t have in West Africa what we saw last year in East Africa,” he said. “Millions of people were moved from being vulnerable to being in a situation of deep hunger and starvation.”
Food shortages and price inflation across the Sahel region, which includes Niger, Mauritania, Mali, Chad, Gambia, Senegal, and Burkina Faso, have put many communities at risk of a humanitarian crisis, Oxfam said in a news release.
The Harper government already pledged $41 million in food aid in February, but Fox said that promise needs to be matched by international donors.
A political crisis in Mali, one of the areas hardest hit by drought, isn’t helping.
A simmering conflict between the government of Mali and the country’s separatist Tuareg rebels accelerated at the beginning of the year.
Recent rebel advances precipitated a military coup on March 22, after which Mali’s neighbours moved to shut down border crossings and Canada suspended $110 million in aid. Despite a newly-appointed transitional government, these measures remain in place.
Development socio-economist Mamadou Goita, who works with the West African Peasants’ and Farmers’ Network, said the conflict has worsened an already serious crisis.
Mali has the biggest food reserves in the region, but the coup put any possibility of sharing those resources with Mali’s neighbours at risk, Goita said.
“There was no movement of population, also products, between Mali and these countries,” he said.
The Harper government’s new budget priorities have targeted foreign aid as an area for spending cuts.
Postmedia News learned this week that 12 of the world’s poorest countries, including seven in Africa, will be affected as the government looks to slash $377 million from Canada’s aid budget over the next three years.
“It’s less and less likely that Canada will be involved in something like this,” said Stephen Brown, an expert on Africa at the University of Ottawa.
“Under the Conservative government we’ve seen less interest in foreign aid as a good thing in and of itself.”
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