The response was almost immediate. Musician Bob Geldof, previously known for a song about a schoolgirl who shoots her classmates, was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for his relief efforts. His "Live Aid" concerts were viewed by a huge worldwide audience. They raised millions of dollars to help eight million people in danger of starvation and signaled a determination that something like this would never happen again.
But it has. Only this time, it’s not eight million, but twenty million people facing death from disease and starvation.
For the past year, word has been coming out of East Africa about a looming humanitarian catastrophe. A severe drought destroyed much of the 2002 harvest. Hardest hit were subsistence farmers who not only lost their harvest, but also the seeds necessary to plant future crops.
As a result, between eleven to twenty million people in Ethiopia and neighboring Kenya face starvation. In addition, millions more, weakened by hunger, are threatened by diseases like tuberculosis, measles, malaria, and meningitis. As Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi told the BBC, "If [the 1984 famine] was a nightmare, then this will be too ghastly to contemplate."
This prospect, and the world’s indifference to it, prompted Representative Frank Wolf of Virginia (R), a Wilberforce Award recipient, to write an op-ed piece for the Washington Post. In it, he writes that when he tried get the media to cover the story, one television producer said that he wouldn’t be interested "until hundreds of children were dying on a daily basis."
That’s shocking. Even more shocking, in its own way, is what happened when Wolf approached the United Nations. He asked UN Secretary General Kofi Annan "to appoint a special envoy for hunger to help elevate the crisis in Africa and to deal with other hunger issues around the world." Annan’s response, Wolf writes, was "less than enthusiastic."
Since we appear to be lacking star power this time around, the leadership role in averting this catastrophe falls squarely where it belongs: the Church.
As my friend Frank Wolf rightly reminds us, this task isn’t optional. In Matthew 25, Jesus tells us that the line that divides sheep from goats is our response to the poor and the hungry—the least of Jesus’ brothers. If Christians won’t be moved to action by what Wolf and others have described, who will?
Part of our response, in addition to giving to good Christian relief agencies, is making our concerns known to our leaders. This is an issue that really is a matter of life and death. And we should treat it as such. We are blessed to live in the one nation that can make the difference. Let’s work to see that saving twenty million lives is a top priority.
Wolf calls what’s happening a "silent emergency." It doesn’t have to be that way—not if the people of God, as Wolf says, tell the story of what’s happening "loudly and boldly."
For further reading and information:
Frank Wolf, "When Will People Pay Attention?" Washington Post, May 11, 2003, B07.
"Wolf: Ethiopia Famine Said to Be Moving to ‘Worst-Case Scenario,’" Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) press release, April 17, 2003.
"Wolf Calls on UN Secretary General Kofi Annan to Appoint Special Envoy to Address World Hunger," Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) press release, March 6, 2003. Read Rep. Wolf’s letter to Annan; free Adobe Acrobat Reader required.
"The Threat of Famine in Ethiopia," report from Ambassador Tony P. Hall, February 15-21, 2003.
"Food for the Hungry Prevents Famine," Food for the Hungry press release, December 13, 2002.
"Ethiopia food crisis ‘overlooked,’" CNN, May 18, 2003.
"Massive famine stalks Ethiopia," BBC News, November 11, 2002.
John Vidal, "The forgotten famine," The Guardian (London), April 30, 2003.
Timothy R. Callahan, "‘I Never Thought I’d See Anything like That Again,’" Christianity Today, May 2003.
BreakPoint Commentary No. 030102, "Star Power and Suffering Children: Exploiting Celebrity."