I met Dr Tom Catena in Sudan’s Nuba Mountains — the site of an African war and famine few have even heard about — in a hospital overflowing with children. I saw bombs had ripped away their arms, flying shrapnel had taken out a baby’s eye, anti-personnel mines had shredded legs to jagged bone and ribbons of gangrenous flesh, infants suffering kwashiorkor and the other horrors of malnutrition. Inspired by St Francis of Assisi, ‘Doctor Tom’ has worked almost every day, all day, since he arrived as the only surgeon for the Catholic hospital in Nuba nine years ago. I asked him: ‘Why do you stay?’ He replied: ‘There’s no other option. You leave and abandon everyone here or you stay and keep going.’
Heroes like Catena convince me that giving to charitable causes in Africa is the right thing to do, because at least some of what you donate will help rescue children like those in Nuba. But we know nothing much is going to change. Six years ago we were told Africa faced the ‘worst drought in 60 years’. In 2015 Ethiopia faced ‘the worst drought in decades’. This year the aid mandarins once dubbed the ‘Lords of Poverty’ by Graham Hancock have upped their hyperbole yet again to claim that wars and droughts across the Horn of Africa, Nigeria and Yemen have generated ‘the largest humanitarian crisis since the creation of the United Nations’ 72 years ago.
Certainly nothing will change if we do not object to the fact that Yemen was heavily dependent on United Nations food aid even before the current civil war — and that this was because two thirds of its cultivable land was devoted to growing khat, a vegetable narcotic on which Yemenis spend most of their daily household income. Nothing will improve unless we acknowledge how across Africa people are fighting over scarce resources, while environmental destruction and corruption are crises that fuel the jihadist insurgencies of Boko Haram and Al-Shabaab — and drive the exodus of migrants to Europe.
Between now and 2050, Africa’s population will double to 2.5 billion — and soon enough, Africa will have more people of working age than anywhere else, but with few jobs to go around. Africa had a larger industrial base in the 1980s than it does now. The prices of Africa’s oil and metals fluctuate, which leaves agriculture. In the last half century African harvests have stagnated — and in countries like Zimbabwe, they collapsed. Vast African forests and virgin lands have been cleared, while soils have eroded, lakes, rivers and aquifers have dried up. Some predictions say that in the next three decades harvests will drop by a fifth.
When South Sudan was briefly at peace four years ago (it has been at war for most of the past six decades), friends of mine offered to invest tens of millions of pounds there to grow rice. Even in peacetime, the country had to import 400,000 tons of food aid every year. On the eve of my friends committing their money, the government in Juba told them all pesticides and fertilisers were banned, because only organic farming was permitted. My friends packed up and left. Today, five million South Sudanese are starving to death, mainly because President Salva Kiir and his Dinka mafia are massacring rival tribes they regard as rebels.
The UK’s development secretary calls what is unfolding in South Sudan tribal genocide — but President Salva Kiir does not care. Last month he raised the permit fee for aid workers from $100 to $10,000. Dropping a few cruise missiles on his head might improve South Sudan’s situation. We know that giving food aid might not — rival armies will loot it; warlords will steal relief aid, sell it in the market and buy more cattle so they can acquire more wives and feed their soldiers. Yet still we should contribute to charity, because some of it might reach people like Tom Catena who do the right thing.
What we should expect when giving to charity is a better performance from the Lords of Poverty themselves. Today the UN blames droughts on climate change, but they have always occurred in Africa with cyclical regularity. In Genesis, Joseph predicted the onset of famine years in Egypt and gathered corn when it was as abundant as ‘the sand of the sea’ for the lean years to come. An ancient Israelite in bondage knew how to think ahead about combatting an African drought better, it seems, than any of today’s UN officials. The UN agency World Food Programme flies food to seaports, or airdrops bags of grain instead of buying locally or trucking supplies by road.
In northern Uganda, the world’s largest refugee camps have been forming for nearly a year as the South Sudanese flee President Salva Kiir’s murderous army. Suddenly UN officials sound alarm bells that a cholera epidemic is about to erupt. Send money now! What we know is that the refugees did not have cholera back home in their villages — but they find it when they congregate in camps specially established by the UN to house and feed them. If the UN knew the refugees were on their way, they had no excuse to allow the risk of cholera to arise. Water from boreholes is plentiful in camps like Bidi Bidi, with its 272,000 refugees, and supplies could be kept clean with large pumps feeding into giant bladder tanks. Instead, the UN transports water for the refugees in 50 trucks every day, dumping the supplies into small plastic tanks that cannot easily be disinfected with chlorine. The reason, witnesses say, is that local UN officials are making money from the water trucks, since they are in control of the lucrative contracts supplying the camps.
This is a familiar story to anybody in the aid business. In South Sudan a couple of years ago, I myself attempted to start a logistics business serving the aid industry — flying and trucking food, supplying kit to provide clean water, constructing buildings for aid agencies. The only contracts we could win were the ones that did not involve us offering bribes — and among all the international aid groups, the very worst were the United Nations agencies deployed to assist people in dire need of humanitarian aid. It was entirely usual for UN officials in Juba to expect bribes of tens of thousands of dollars in return for a contract. In an environment where contractors were happy to pay such inducements, we did not stand a chance.
Among all the aid organisations working on this year’s emergency appeals across Africa, departments of the United Nations will control the lion’s share of funds. In recent years there has been a flurry of stories about impropriety among UN workers, including rampant theft and sexual abuse. At a time when Donald Trump’s administration plans to cut US funding for the UN, the new secretary general António Guterres is promising to speed up overhauling a system that has been more resistant to reform in recent decades than anywhere outside Pyongyang.
UN workers who commit crimes such as fraud and paedophilia enjoy complete impunity thanks to a little-known international law called the 1946 Convention on the Privileges and Immunities of the UN. While we give generously to assist Africa’s poor, we should expect an end to the corruption that still exists within the United Nations.
Aidan Hartley is the author of The Zanzibar Chest and writes the Wild Life column for this magazine. He has a farm in Laikipia, Kenya.