An odd consequence of the famine in East Africa is that now schools have a record attendance. Normally kids going to schools is a GOOD thing. But this is tragic.

From BBC.

…the local Oxfam team took me to a school where I met Mohammed, its eloquent headmaster.

He said that around a month ago, half of the primary school children had stopped attending classes. He explained that the drought was so severe that families had to take their cattle many miles away in search of pasture, making attending school impossible.

Now however, school attendance is higher than it ever has been and the classrooms I saw were packed full of kids.

My relief on at last hearing some good news was cut short when he explained that the only reason they have come back to school is because they no longer have any livestock to look after, and attending school is the only way they can get food.

The situation is so bad that even people in their late teens are trying to enrol in primary school.

No more livestock means no more economy for many. This will be a bad, long term problem. But it is also a major crisis right now. From elsewhere in the same article:

They told me that the malnutrition rates are already triple their normal levels and that the huge numbers of kids currently classed as ‘moderately’ malnourished could, within weeks, move to being severely malnourished. It would be at this stage that the mortality rates would soar.

The local hospital here is already full of severely malnourished children. In Wajir clinic alone, one child a week is already dying and that figure is increasing all the time.

The scenes on the ward are those that we all hoped Africa had left behind in the 1980s – distended bellies, children teetering on the brink of death and mothers waving flies away from their children’s eyes.

We’ve been through this before. It is time for Africa and the world to do a better job. The traditional “development” programs that lead to debt, low paying jobs and environmental destruction have failed as they failed in the 90’s and in the 80’s. It isn’t working.

I have been proposing an alternative. And I am going to propose it again, because it really can work, but only if many people pull together to help.

My proposal is this: a coordinated effort by the progressive blogsphere (that’s you and me, my friend, not someone else) that will focus on several interconnected issues with a view towards REGIONAL and COMMUNITY based development. I have been proposing the target area of Uganda/Kenya/Tanzania (roughly the Rift Valley/Lakes region of East Africa) as a trial run for this idea because of the critical environmental issues, the presence of excellent groups like Kiva, and the fact that these nations are just stable enough have a chance for becoming actually prosperous if the immediate crises can be survived.

Here I cover ways we can help deal with the famine, environmental issues (including population control), women’s rights, education and economic development (focusing on small businesses, the bedrock of any healthy economy). Pick your favorite issue and PLEASE act upon it in a big way.

An outline of my proposal:

I. Dealing with the immediate famine: East Africa needs food. Now. That cannot be ignored. The scale of the famine is huge and so far is not being addressed by the international community anywhere near adequately. The only way they will get it is if human beings from all over the world, including us, help them out. You and I can start by helping to get East Africa food aid. A donation to Oxfam is probably the best thing you can do to help East Africa in its most immediate crisis.

II. Dealing with the environmental root causes of drought and famine: What are the root causes of this famine? People can point to several. But fundamentally there are some fundamental problems that quite simply trump all other root causes. Currently Africa is facing, simultaneously, a rapid decline of its fresh water lakes, a rapid decline in its forests, and a rapid increase in population. The combination creates an environmental situation that inevitably will lead to more and more droughts and hence to more and more famines. These environmental issues are on all levels the most important long-term issues that need to be addressed. No economic development plan, no food aid, no political changes from within can end African instability if these environmental crises are not addressed. These African environmental issues are also part of a global trend. The entire WORLD is facing a decline in fresh water sources, decline in forests and increased population and these trends are leading to wars, famines, and global warming.

Across the globe, one of the most destabilizing factors in any society’s history, be it Japan or Haiti or Kenya, is deforestation. Sane forest management, after economic problems caused by deforestation, is one of the secrets of Japan’s success. Bangladesh, on the other hand, faces an annual cycle of devastating floods followed by devastating droughts because of deforestation in the Himalayas. The theme of the devastating effects of deforestation and the benefits of forest management and reforestation recurs often in Jared Diamond’s book Collapse though it is also obvious to anyone familiar with the problems of a nation like Bangladesh. Diamond simply argues it more formally and globally than I have heard before. And, of course, deforestation is also one of the factors contributing to global warming. One of the most important thing that any human being can do to help Africa as well as the world is to contribute to forest management and/or reforestation.

The NY Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) has three programs trying to preserve the forests, lakes and wildlife of East Africa. Their focus is on BOTH the environment and the human populations in the area, integrating the economic and social needs of communities with the needs of the environment. One program focuses on preserving the entire regional environment in Albertine Rift region of Africa, mostly centered on Uganda, Rwanda and the Congo. This is one of the most critically threatened regions of Africa’s environment. Preservation of this region is critical for the economy and freshwater supply of the region, the ecotourism industry of the region, and for preservation of the world’s forests as a buffer for global warming. I strongly urge a donation to the WCS Albertine Rift Program. A second program focues on the preserving the Uganda environment in particular. The third program focuses on preserving the entire habitat of the mountain gorilla, an effort that includes some of the East African environment that provides the watershed for the nations we are focusing on. I include this program partly because it covers some of the same environmental regions as the other two programs, but also because the preservation of the Mountain Gorilla is another of my pet projects. So this is an opportunity to urge people to help two of my pet projects: helping East Africa and saving the Mountain Gorilla.

Overpopulation is also a global problem, as many pointed out in the diary on Daily Kos discussing the politics of African famines. We are all familiar with Planned Parenthood, which addresses BOTH population issues and issues of women’s reproductive rights and health. To those who view Africa’s and the world’s problems as primarily a population issue, Planned Parenthood’s International organization will be of considerable interest to you. But this concatenation of population and women’s issues leads to my next section.

III. Women’s Rights: One of the most important measures of development is the place of women in society. As a first approximation, women’s rights go along with development. A more equal role of women in society seems to correlate well with improvements in health, education and prosperity. The equation is not simple, but women’s rights are, in my view, an integral part of stable, sustainable development. Furthermore, in addition to access to family planning services (see above for International Planned Parenthood Federation for this), the best means for controlling population increase is through women’s literacy and economic empowerment.

So, I want to highlight some groups in East Africa that are addressing women’s rights. The Uganda Women’s Network (UWONET) is an advocacy and lobbying coalition of National Women’s NGOs, institutions and individuals in Uganda, founded in 1993. UWONET was born out of the East African Women’s Conference held in Kampala in 1993. Their aim to “engender policies, laws and programmes, structures and processes in order to address the needs of both women and men leading to the achievement of gender equity and equality.” In Tanzania, Kivulini Women’s Rights Organization is a registered Non-Governmental Organization based in Mwanza, Tanzania. In Kiswahili, Kivulini means “in the shade.” The word implies a place under the tree where people discuss and support each other.

IV. Education: Education is one of the most important aspect of any individual person’s or any society’s formula for success. In East Africa, education is not free. School fees prevent many individuals from getting even a basic education. Girls, in particular, are poorly served by education in Africa. You can help sponsor the secondary school education for a child in Kenya or Tanzania, though in this case you have to send a check to the Canadian Harambee Education Society. Find out more on their website.

V. Economic Development (small businesses): One of the most important aspect of any local economy are small businesses. And the development of small businesses in East Africa is the focus of two excellent organizations Village Enterprise Fund (VEF) and Kiva. In many ways these two organizations work in tandem to help small business owners in Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania to get started and to expand. In general, VEF helps get people started running a business but giving them a microgrant (generally around $100) and some training in effective business practices. This alone will make a huge difference to many people in East Africa seeking to better their economic life and in some ways VEF may be one of the best organizations you can give to if you want to help improve the local economy in East Africa. These small businesses are not part of an export economy, but are mostly simply small stores, tailors, fish mongers, goat herders, brick makers, restaurants, bike shops, etc. that will improve the local economy.

Once a business has shown some success after being sponsored by a group like VEF, they can then be considered by Kiva as a recipient of a microloan to help expand. Kiva.directly connects you and a small business owner in East Africa so that you can help that business owner with a small loan. For those new to this idea, Kiva connects small lenders (you and me) who can lend as little as $25, with small businesses in East Africa who need small loans. All small scale! You get your money back within 6-12 months, though without interest. This method of helping can make a large difference for a small business, and it is a great source of pride for a business owner to receive a loan, improve their business, then repay the loan. The recipients of Kiva loans do very well and are very proud of the partnership with lenders.

Please find at least ONE thing you can do and please spread the word. This effort depends on a broad, grassroots outpouring of help. You’ll feel good about it and in the long run it does help America as well.

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