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Posted on Apr 1, 2017

Our response to famine: why it is imperative to go further than charity

Our response to famine: why it is imperative to go further than charity


The most recent trigger for fundraising action in Muslim communities has been the current famine in East Africa (Somalia specifically) and also Yemen. While these efforts are imperative and highly commendable, we must also trace the origins of such crises to properly understand the broader issue. Br Abdullah Hamimi explores this issue, highlighting the need for a deeper analysis of the causes of such famines and poverty. 

It is common to hear or speak about the states that make up East Africa be described in terms of poverty, famine, conflict, death and disease. Quite tragically, this is often all they are known for and effectively the primary terms used in any description of them. However, this general narrative comes from a very specific perspective, one that does little to recognise the rich history, culture and peoples of the region as well as, importantly, the geopolitical foreign machinations/interventions that have dominated these territories for centuries.

That is obviously a much larger discussion, but the point is made such that one may appreciate how this impacts our understanding of the situation in Somalia for example, and the response which it evokes from the Muslim community locally and perhaps even worldwide.

Read more: 6 Million at risk as disastrous famine looms in Somalia

Naturally, when we hear about the starvation and poverty we are moved by it. The imams at the minbar give emotional speeches pleading for sadaqa/zakaat. Unfortunately though, ‘the emotions of man are stirred more quickly than man’s intelligence’ and so we are set the task of remedying the saddening realities which are apparent to us.

What is too often missed is the fact that there are underlying factors intrinsic to the problem that are not quite as apparent. Thus, our thoughts focus upon the surface and not what lies underneath. The remedies that are then proposed simply cannot and will not cure the disease: in actuality, they merely prolong it and allow the terrible suffering to persist. Indeed, such remedies are part of the disease.

A man giving water to a thirsty child in Somalia

A man giving water to a thirsty child in Somalia

It’s no coincidence or accident that this is the case either. As with most crises, the mentality somehow seems to become one close to an “act now, think later” or “don’t overthink, just do” approach. Hearts are moved when hearing of the extent of the poverty in East Africa, but what is vital is that our minds correctly understand the matter – otherwise we miss the mark with our responses. Our community may pull out its wallets and swipe its bank cards, but not much will result (other than a need to do so again) if we do not diagnose the roots of the problem.

That is not – in any way at all – to belittle the importance of giving in charity, as that is a fundamental pillar of our Islam. Without question, immediate needs must be met and so fundraising and sending aid in a timely manner is most certainly a vital community effort.

But to stop here would be deeply problematic, as it would effectively ignore the artificially created systems and realities that we have played a part in rendering invisible, through our ignorance to them, the economic and political structures that sit at the heart of the current East African crisis and the many that have come before.

Western capitalism and the economic arrogance that comes with it has ravaged the entire African continent. Western machinery (literally as well as figuratively) has mined the ground beneath the arid African sands, leaving a hollowed void where wealth and resources used to be. So even if our charity efforts build houses, wells, schools and farms upon these lands, it is only a matter of time before the ground caves in and our efforts collapse under an overarching architecture constructed by Western greed.

The geopolitical and economic root causes of the reality in Somalia for example, cannot be confronted or even discussed in any meaningful depth. With numerous fundraising dinners and charity drives, we almost willfully provide a superficially de-politicised depiction of human suffering. At these dinners, our own food may be on the table, but discussion of the critical root questions on the origins of the lack of food for starving peoples is not. Famine/poverty is portrayed in only technical terms as simply a mere lack of things – money, education, resources – whilst not asking the critical question of the source of the lack. The outcome is then deceptively simple, send more money, more clothes and more food. Problem (not) solved.

So then why is the business of ‘international aid’ only growing? This can be explained by the continued existence of the ‘aid’ agencies. Whilst more charity/aid is being given and spent, perhaps the most in human history, why is the need perpetually growing? It should make us pause and think when we realise that despite all that has been given in charity, more is consistently requires. What that indicates is that the very concept of giving in charity as a response is misplaced, since all that has been given in charity before has not been able to solve (or even suitably address) the problem.

syrians waiting for food

Syrian refugees lining up to collect food from aid organisations

It is hardly a surprise then that our remedies are myopic and we miss the forest for the trees. We feel sadness is somewhat soothed by knowing we have donated, so we conclude that we have “done our bit” and that is all that we can do. All that we have done though is ignore the most foundational consideration, and thereby have committed a major disservice to our cause(s).

This is not the first famine in Somalia and will likely not be the last. But we, as an Ummah, simply cannot afford to miss the critical questions any longer. Do we understand the geopolitics of the region? Why is a resourcefully blessed part of the world, with human and natural resources, decimated with ongoing suffering whilst African leaders and multinational corporations fill their pockets with wealth? Why do western interventions almost permanently exist in those areas and what should be our responses to them? What are neighbouring nations doing – are they assisting or prolonging the situation? There are many questions that must be asked and our realisation of the answers could not come soon enough.

children food

Children in Yemen scavenging for food in rubbish dumps

Somalia is a country that has untapped reserves, including natural gas, iron ore, uranium, tin, copper and salt. However between 2010-2012 approximately 260,000 Somalians, half of them children, died due to famine. Our aim should not be to simply service this devastating poverty/famine, but to seek a reconstruction of society such that poverty itself will be impossible. Definitely an idealistic aim and most certainly a long term vision but one that we must place for ourselves so that we can move along that path. These issues deserve far more than just our tears, sympathies and feelings.

This is no proposition of a silver bullet solution, but an attempt to raise our collective level of thinking in understanding these realities so that it evoke a much needed discussion, which is not exclusive to Somalia. It requires us to think and investigate at a much deeper level, one that transcends our concern with our own emotions to these crises and has us do something with a lasting outcome, which is what our Ummah deserves and urgently requires.

Abdullah Hamimi is an active member of the Muslim community in Melbourne, a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir in Australia and a student of Global Studies at Monash University. 

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