Thursday, October 20, 2011

Famine


I have hesitated posting this, because the subject is unpleasant for me to write about, much less for you to read about.  But in the end I feel that it is important to write a little bit about why I have put so much effort into the upcoming Runners Without Borders event scheduled for this Saturday.  I am so very grateful for the tremendous support that everyone has provided up to this point, and I know the event will be a fun, joyous occasion for all, and that is the intent of this fund-raising exercise.  And maybe it is best in the end to simply focus on that; the camaraderie, the joie de vivre of the occasion.  But some sober reflection is in order as well, for the reason we celebrate life with so much passion is partly because we know that is it precious, and that we are lucky to enjoy it as a precious thing.

If you don't want to get into the heavy stuff today, then stop right here.  I will think nothing less of you.  Otherwise, brave reader, read on.

I don't want to get too over the top with the pulling of heartstrings and such, because I find that approach manipulative and ultimately condescending.  But I do want to express how I feel about famine and why the work that Doctors Without Borders (DWB) does is so important.  Famine is a horrible thing.  And in this day and age famine is a man-made thing, and should be completely preventable.  Say what you will about drought, overpopulation and overgrazing, and climate change and water issues.  Those are all contributors to conditions that can cause a famine.  And many if not all of those are man-made conditions.  But ultimately there is enough food to feed everyone.  Famine is inexcusable.  So why does it happen?  Sometimes we just can't get food to the people who need it.  And sometimes people are actually prevented from getting the food they need.  Sometimes intentionally.

Голодомор is a word I hope you will never see again after today.  I'm not even going to link that word to a web site, for I don't want to encourage you to look too closely into the hollow eyes of famine.  I'm not even going to tell you how to pronounce that word.  It is a sacred, terrible word.  Голодомор means "Killing by Hunger", and it is the word for a devastating famine in the Ukraine that occurred about 80 years ago.  The truth will never be known, but is it estimated that somewhere between 2.4 million and 10 million people died of famine -- starvation and attendant disease -- in the Ukraine between 1932 and 1933.  Aside from the huge number of people who died, what I find striking is that the death estimates vary so widely.  I presume this is because entire towns starved to death and were depopulated, and the town records were subsequently altered or destroyed by the Soviet regime, who were both the cause and the amplifiers of this famine.  In my opinion Голодомор represents Josef Stalin's worst crime against humanity, and that is saying something.  It was his Holocaust, with comparably grim statistics to boot.

When I read about this famine I shook my head and wondered why this was allowed to happen, as would anyone to comes to know about such horrible things.  The causes of this famine are still debated, but the prevailing thought is that the famine was caused largely due to the failures of the Soviet food collectivization programs of the 1930s.  Many also believe that the Ukrainians were intentionally starved by the Soviets.  Of course in 1932 in the USSR it was rather difficult to obtain credible information about what was happening, much less why it was happening.  But for whatever reason, whether because of malice or pride or something else, Stalin and the Soviets denied that the famine happened.  They wanted to keep the news of the famine quiet.  Голодомор was a man-made famine, entirely preventable, but ultimately preventable only by the Soviets.  And Голодомор isn't even the worst famine in history.  I use it as an example here to reinforce my statement that famine is ultimately a man-made problem, and requires a man-made solution, and also to illustrate the usefulness of unbiased and credible reporting of famines.

Why is this relevant and how does this compare with what is happening in Somalia right now?  In Somalia, a drought in the southern part of the country has created conditions that have led to a famine.  The drought alone would have caused hardships, but a civil war and a jihadist militia called Al-Shabaab have essentially amplified the drought into a famine.  Furthermore, Al-Shabaab is accused of preventing aid from reaching the most distressed areas, and is also accused of preventing people under their control from leaving the famine zone for the capital or fleeing to refugee camps in Kenya and Ethiopia.  Even still, many thousands of desperate Somalis have been able to leave the most affected and closed-off areas, and are now able to receive aid from organizations such as DWB.  But many others are stuck in circumstances most dire, and even for those who have fled survival is no guarantee; only a possibility.

This famine in Somalia differs from the Ukrainian famine in one minor and two major aspects.  First the minor difference; in Somalia the famine appears to have been precipitated by a drought.  In the Ukraine it appears to have been precipitated by the Soviet policy of collectivization.  But both situations, combined with tyrannical and repressive governments, have resulted in famines.

The first major difference between the two famines is in terms of information and access, and our collective ability to react to the disaster.  In the Ukraine, foreign journalists were not permitted to access or report on the famine.  One reporter did in fact try to report on the famine but his reports were discredited by the Soviets and by Communist sympathizers and Soviet appeasers in the free world.  The reports became rumors and were ultimately ignored, with the result that the famine was allowed to continue uninhibited.

In 1932 Doctors Without Borders didn't exist.  Would DWB have been allowed to go to the Ukraine in 1932?  Sadly probably not, but it's difficult to speculate.  It is a different world now, a world still in crisis, but a world that now contains organizations like DWB that can fight against famine, or at least mitigate their effects.  DWB is on the ground in Somalia, reporting on what they see to a world that listens, because they are viewed as an independent organization with no political or religious agenda.  And of course DWB is actively administering aid and saving lives in this most dangerous country.  Ultimately DWB can't solve the problem on their own, but they can save lives and bring the issues to our collective attention.  They are helping the world realize that there is a problem that needs to be solved.  As much as the actual tangible aid helps, so too does the flow of information.  Clearly many Somalians would die if DWB wasn't administering vaccines and treating malnutrition right now.  And many more would die if no one outside of Somalia knew about this famine, a la the Ukraine in 1932.  The work that DWB is doing is both timely and important, and the world is a better place for it.

And the second major difference between the famine in the Ukraine and the famine in Somalia?  The famine in the Ukraine happened almost 80 years ago.  The famine in Somalia is happening right now.  That's a sobering yet galvanizing thought.  It is true that Somalians right now are in desperate straits and need help.  But it is also true that unlike 80 years ago, we have the ability to help.  And luckily and ironically enough, it is easy and even fun to help.  All we have to do is get together, run some trails, and raise some money.  Thankfully we don't have to look into the eyes of famine to help defeat it.  And even if we contribute just a little bit of money, heck, even if all we do is continue to raise awareness about the famine, we're doing something good.  It really doesn't take much.  Consider that a measles vaccine costs about $1.  That may be the difference in saving a life of a severely malnourished child who otherwise may lack the strength to overcome the disease.  What we do this weekend matters.  So run, laugh, and enjoy the day, and know that with every loop you complete you are doing something good.  The work that DWB does is so very important, and the support we give them makes a huge difference.  Thank you.






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