Left Behind to Starve
A humanitarian disaster is engulfing Africa as cash is poured into the war
with Iraq and its aftermath
By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 18th March 2003
There is surely no more obvious symptom of the corruption of western politics
than the disproportion between the money available for sustaining life and the
money available for terminating it. We could, I think, expect that, if they
were asked to vote on the matter, most of the citizens of the rich world would
demand that their governments spend as much on humanitarian aid as they spend
on developing new means of killing people. But the military-industrial complex
is a beast which becomes both fiercer and greedier the more it is fed.
As the United States prepares to spend some $12 billion a month on bombing
the Iraqis, it has so far offered only $65 million to provide them with food,
water, sanitation, shelter and treatment for the injuries they are likely to
receive1. A confidential UN contingency plan for Iraq, which was leaked in
January, suggests that the war could expose around one million children to
"risk of death from malnutrition." It warns that "the collapse of essential
services in Iraq could lead to a humanitarian emergency of proportions well
beyond the capacity of UN agencies and other aid organizations."2 Around 60 per
cent of the population is entirely dependent on the oil for food programme,
administered by the Iraqi government. This scheme was suspended by the UN
yesterday, leaving the Iraqis reliant on foreign aid. The money pledged so far
is enough to sustain the Iraqis for less than a fortnight3.
It is hard to believe, however, that the US government will leave them to
starve once it has captured their country. For the weeks or months during which
Iraq dominates the news, the US will be obliged to defend them from the most
immediate impacts of the institutional collapse its war will cause. Afterwards,
like the people of Afghanistan, the Iraqis will be first forgotten by the media
and then deserted by those who promised to support them.
But even before the first troops cross the border, the impending war has
caused a global humanitarian crisis. As donor countries set aside their aid
budgets to save both themselves and the United States from embarrassment under
the camera lights in Baghdad, they have all but ceased to provide money to
other nations. The world, as a result, could soon be confronted by a
humanitarian funding crisis graver than any since the end of the Second World
Every year, in November, the UN agencies which deal with disasters launch
what they call a "consolidated appeal" for each of the countries suffering a
"complex emergency". They expect to receive the money they request by May of
the following year. The payments and promises they have extracted so far chart
the collapse of international concern for the people of almost every nation
In Eritrea, for example, the drought is so severe that the water table has
fallen by ten metres. Most of the nation's crops have failed and grain prices
have doubled. Seventy per cent of its 3.3 million people are now classified as
vulnerable to famine4. The United Nations has asked the rich countries for
$163m to help them. It has received $4m, or 2.5% of the money it requested5.
Burundi, where almost one sixth of the inhabitants have been forced out of
their homes by conflict and natural disasters, and which is now officially
listed as the third poorest nation on earth, has received 3% of its UN request.
Liberia, where rebels have rendered much of the western part of the country
uninhabitable, forcing some 500,000 people out of their homes, has been given
1.2%; Sierra Leone, where lassa fever is now rampaging through the refugee
camps, has received 1%; and Guinea, which has recently taken 82,000 refugees
from Cote d'Ivoire, 0.4%. Somalia, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo
have all received less than 6%.
Much of the money for these invisible countries has come from donor nations
with relatively small economies, such as Sweden, Norway, Canada and Ireland.
"The state of Africa", Tony Blair told his party conference in October 2001,
"is a scar on the conscience of the world, but if the world focused on it, we
could heal it"6. Well, let it now be a scar on the conscience of Tony Blair.
As a result of this unprecedented failure by the rich nations to cough up,
the people of the forgotten countries will, very soon, begin to starve to
death. The UN has warned that "a break in supplies" to Eritrea "is now
inevitable"7. The World Food Programme has started feeding fewer people there,
but will run out of food within two months. In Burundi it can, it says,
continue feeding people "for another four weeks"8. Beans will run out in
Liberia this month; cereals in May9. One hundred thousand refugees in Guinea
could find themselves without food by August10. Yet neither of the two
governments which are about to launch a "humanitarian war" appear to be
concerned by the impending humanitarian catastrophes in the world's poorest
The aid crisis is now so serious that it is restricting disaster relief even
in nations which are considered by the major powers to be geopolitically
important. The UN agencies have so far received just 2.9% of their request for
Palestine, and 8.4% of the money they need in Afghanistan.
The latter figure is, in light of the repeated promises made by the nations
prosecuting the war there, extraordinary. "To the Afghan people we make this
commitment," Blair pledged during the same speech in October 2001. "The
conflict will not be the end. We will not walk away, as the outside world has
done so many times before."11 Three months later, the UN estimated that
Afghanistan would need at least $10bn for reconstruction over the following
five years. The US, which had just spent $4.5bn on bombing the country, offered
$300m for the first year and refused to make any commitment for subsequent
years. This year, George Bush "forgot" to produce an aid budget for
Afghanistan, until he was forced to provide another $300m by Congress12.
The government, which has an annual budget of just $460 million - or around
half of what the US still spends every month on chasing the remnants of Al
Qaeda through the mountains - is effectively bankrupt. At the beginning of this
month the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, flew to Washington to beg George Bush
for more money. He was given $50m, $35m of which the US insists is spent on the
construction of a five-star hotel in Kabul13. Karzai, in other words, has
discovered what the people of Iraq will soon find out: generosity dries up when
you are yesterday's news.
If, somehow, you are still suffering from the delusion that this war is to be
fought for the sake of the Iraqi people, I would invite you to consider the
record of the prosecuting nations. We may believe that George Bush and Tony
Blair have the interests of foreigners at heart only when they spend more on
feeding them than they spend on killing them.
1. The Center for Economic & Social Rights, 7 Mar 2003. The Human Costs of
War in Iraq. New York.
2. United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs,
January 7, 2003. "Integrated Humanitarian Contingency Plan for Iraq and
Neighboring Countries," Confidential Draft. Cited in The Center for Economic &
Social Rights, ibid.
3. The oil for food programme was to have supplied the Iraqis with over $1bn
in humanitarian supplies between December 2002 and June 2003, a rate of over
$40m a week, which would have provided basic subsistence. So far official
pledges amount to $80m ($65 m from the US and $15 m from the UK). Humanitarian
costs rise during war time.
4. UN OCHA Integrated Regional Information Network, 11 March 2003. Eritrea:
Funding crisis as food situation becomes critical.
5. All the statistics on Consolidated Appeal requests come from:
on 16 March 2003.
6. Tony Blair, 2 October 2001. Speech to the Labour Party conference,
7. World Food Programme, 14 Mar 2003 . WFP Emergency Report No. 11 of 2003
11. Tony Blair, ibid.
12. eg http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/south_asia/2759789.stm
13. US Department of State, 7 March 2003. OPIC pledges additional $50 million
for U.S. investment in Afghanistan