9 September 2005

Alright, maybe the Asian Tsunami took holiday-making senior officials by surprise. But Darfur killing and starvation was predictable. More recently, Niger was an open book for anyone with secondary background in Development. A persistent drought last year followed by invasion of locusts made that small, poor yet proud country an obvious case for U.N. combined effort. It could have been an opening for a clear success story in handling a starvation challenge IF THOSE AT U.N. HEADQUARTERS WERE PAYING ATTENTION.

When tragic media reports started coming about Niger, there was an almost half-hearted appeal for funds, as if to be able to claim that we did our duty. While hundreds of thousands were dying of starvation, very little effort was made to mobilize public opinion. Much less was done to really raise funds or even shame potential donors as was done once earlier for obviously political purposes. Even worse, the crisis was reaching catastrophic proportion while a number of singers like Bono were holding "feel good" concerts under the banner: "Making poverty history". Actually, history indeed was being made, not only in more sales of their albums but in the number of starved women and children in poor countries. Even as Niger started hosting inquisitive reporters from CNN and BBC, no serious or senior U.N. official made even a token appearance. Eventually, and only in late August the Secretary General who was holidaying in Ghana (where he received an "achievement award"!) made a better late than never visit. Unfortunately, it had the markings of a managed photo opportunity, particularly with an elaborate story about that young girl who had walked for hours to present her case. Most media, especially "Le Monde," did not swallow that performance. Even the usually helpful BBC focused on the plight of the people rather than the "compassion" of the distinguished visitor. After all, photo opportunities are not an alternative to substantive action. The pro-forma habit of visiting a place AFTER it had been ravaged may be the job of movie-makers but not a concerned internationalist with a mandate that calls for alleviating suffering and preserving human dignity. Sustainable development, touted as a major objective, means preparing ground and AVERTING particularly predictable cases. How many scandalous cases does it take for leaders to realize that death by starvation is too serious to deal merely by a brief visit, a feel-good musical event -- or a finely-tuned declaration?

"Apropos" declarations, it has become "de rigueur" for every group gathering around U.N. circles to include a reference to the Millennium Development Goals. A farcical claim to end poverty by the year 2015 remains an integral part of the year 2000 target statement. Instead of ensuring -- even supervising -- practical effective action, officials assembling in Bali, the Mauritius and eventually New York repeat the same claim as if they were indeed on target.

As people die, they fly. That seems to be the real purpose. Very sad indeed.