It is poignant this week that Ireland marks National Famine Memorial Day at the same time that yet again graphic news reports highlight food shortages and suffering of millions of people this time across the Western Sahel region of Africa.
Ireland’s experience of famine, passed from generation to generation on this island and elsewhere across the globe in the Irish Diaspora through a multitude of cultural references of poet, artist and song, has remained firm in the national consciousness for more than a century and a half. Such an enduring collective point of reference has in no small part been sustained by an education system rightly proud of a rich heritage but also by an interpretation of history that has importantly placed the concept of hunger not simply as a lack of food but as part of a broader social, cultural and political context that leaves the most impoverished segments of the population especially vulnerable when access to food is undermined.
While it is perhaps ironic that the particular vulnerability caused by a lack of land ownership in the mid-nineteenth century drove an until recent obsession with property that might yet create a new poverty, the collective consciousness has always remained true. This is evidenced by an ever present spirit of giving whenever crises occur, especially famine, even translating into continued public expression of support for overseas aid despite the many challenges at home in a recent survey commissioned by Dóchas, the association of Irish Non-Governmental Development Organisations. Indeed, the survey indicated a national pride in the Ireland’s reputation as a donor. Interestingly, the very same survey indicated that the public is unsure about the difference such aid makes to the lives of those they wish to help which might even point to the suggestion that the response to crises might be more genetically or culturally engrained than one might think. A reflex response even..??
This prompts the question of how might Ireland respond were the impact of aid to be better demonstrated. The challenge for many agencies in communicating with their general audience is that communication efforts are driven by the need to engage an audience amongst an increasing volume of information flow, or perhaps more accurately, competing information overflow, where frustratingly only the most extreme stands apart. As such, only the most graphic images sourced at the height of an emergency tend to be deemed newsworthy, go mainstream and yield financial support for later, and frankly more costly, response efforts. This is a phenomena known only too well to the Red Cross and other aid agencies who this year, despite not inconsiderable effort, and as last year in the Horn of Africa, are only now seeing broader international interest in the emerging food crisis in the Sahel where cheaper and timely but less dramatic preventative action would have proven more effective in meeting that priority which must count above all others: reducing human suffering.
The reality remains that Ireland’s collective national conscience, re-enforced again this week by a Famine memorial ceremony in the port town of Drogheda from where so many on this island departed in search of a better life, has proven time and time again a source of empathy with those facing similar hardship. The challenge remains to engage without interruption what is the most fertile ground of well informed hearts and minds already sensitised to the fact, lest we forget, that hunger and famine is an outcome of a more complex reality, before that hunger and famine itself becomes reality. Aid agencies are not blameless for the plethora of jargon ridden communiqués but do struggle to be heard and the fact remains, the challenge to be heard is theirs. The challenge of hunger in the Sahel too is theirs because they have chosen as humanitarians to accept it but the responsibility is a broader one.
Despite the efforts of a select few, there was of course no humanitarian intervention as we know it today to prevent or substantively alleviate human suffering during Ireland’s Great Famine. And it is inappropriate if not crude and impossible to ever compare human suffering even more so across centuries but for many in the Sahel at this time, the prospect of empty fields, wells and pots and worse still the fear of being forgotten is not a distant one. Their challenges stand still greater. And not for them this time even as a landlocked country the option of emigration as regional conflict restricts opportunities for the movement of labour abroad. Nor for them the comfort of land ownership as climate change, seasonal drought and desertification increasing encroach on what productive resources they once had. The causes of hunger are many and complex lest we forget….and we must never forget.
By Colm Byrne