The UN World Food Programme(WFP) has been bombarding the media recently with adverts asking for help address the famine in Madagascar.
The WFP is presenting this as a one-off climate change induced crisis, with director David Beasley talking about his recent visit and seeing “children’s buttocks flapping”. Charming. Madagascar needs help, but supplying food aid is just the tip of the iceberg.
The disaster of the famine currently unfolding is heartbreaking. Thousands are already at risk of starvation and it is set to get much worse. But what is even more heartbreaking is the realisation that this was an accident waiting to happen. The WFP‘s adverts show the images of emaciated children close to death which make us shudder. But we have seen these pictures before and the truth is that majority of us will just move on.
Of course we have to help with this crisis and food is part of the answer. But scratch just below the surface, look at three basic statistics about Madagascar and you can see the truth behind this situation:
- In 1960 the population of Madagascar was 5 million. Today it is 28 million. It is set to double again by 2050.
- Madagascar has lost 90% of its forests in less than a century.
- Three quarters of adults have no access to contraception.
These three facts have led to the once beautiful and unique island of Madagascar becoming an ecological disaster area. The two images we have of Madagascar couldn’t be more different. On the one hand we have the saccharine Disneyfied fairytale image of the Madagascar movie with a lush green utopia full of happy, cute and carefree animals and wildlife. Then we have the polar opposite image of starving children close to death holding out their hand for a scrap of food.
The WFP is there with one purpose – food. But this doesn’t solve a thing in the longer term. It’s like going to the doctor with a headache and the doctor giving you some paracetamol and telling you to go home – without commenting on the axe stuck in your forehead. We have let this crisis happen over the last few decades and it was entirely preventable. Now we have to face the consequences of our neglect and watch as the disaster unfolds over the coming years. The horse has well and truly bolted. The current population of Madagascar is already several times what it can support.
Meanwhile the wildlife which has taken second place and doesn’t stand a chance. The ecosystem has no voice but is even more devastated than the human population, with species being lost that are found nowhere else on the planet. Once humans arrived a few thousand years ago we set to work wiping out species almost immediately, including elephant birds, pygmy hippos, giant tortoises and lemurs. Now we are finishing the job.
The WFP says the famine is happening because of climate change. It is true that there is a long term drought caused by climate change, but this is just the straw that broke the camel’s back and isn’t the underlying issue. The unstoppable tide of the Anthropocene is here and this is just the first wave of more to come. And this is just one country.
The way to stop the disaster in Madagascar is simple and yet the powers above have failed entirely to act. The answer isn’t a one-off supply of shipped in food as begged for by the WFP. The answer is to invest in community health, family planning and restoration of the ecosystems. The restoration of ecosystems will naturally follow when population size stabilises and eventually reduces to sustainable levels. Contraception is easy to supply with modern long term contraception readily available and willingly taken by women who do not want the burden of a large family to support. Contraceptives are cheap and effective and can give girls and women the assurance that they can have exactly the number of children they want, thus giving those children a far better chance of gaining an education and a better quality of life rather than the burden of being part of a large family which cannot support itself living in poverty.
We have sat back and let this happen and there are absolutely no signals from governments and international bodies that anything will change at the scale required. We could have solved this easily 20 years ago. Madagascar could have turned back to the incredibly beautiful and diverse place it once was. We can still help. There are a few brave charities doing their best to help, such as Blue Ventures and Marie Stopes, who have the vision to really improve lives and the environment. If you want to help with a donation personally, help this way.
Until some real investment by governments to give everyone who wants it free access to family planning, these great charities are fighting a losing battle.