Famine: A Spiritual Problem

Image by UNICEF Australia

Following severe drought in the East Africa, the United Nations has declared a famine in the region for the first time since the 1980s. The images and stories are both tragic and devastating – babies struggling to live, malnourished children with bloated stomachs and mothers having to make decisions in providing for their children that no parent should ever have to make.

In an article titled East Africa famine: Our values are on trial, Andrew O’Hagan describes some of the horrors of the poverty and starvation.

This is the children’s famine. Running from conflict, and sick with hunger and thirst, people are fleeing to the borders or the aid camps, many children dying on the way or too weak to survive once they get there. In some areas one in three children is seriously malnourished and at severe risk of death. In October the rains will come, most likely bringing epidemics of malaria and measles. Some of the children just lie down and wait for death, which is likely; or mercy, which is elsewhere.  Andrew O’Hagan

Aid agencies and international organisations are scrambling to get emergency aid delivered where it needs to be, taking out full page advertisements in newspapers and making urgent appeals to governments and the public for donations.

People have begun to ask the important question: what is to be said of a world in which so many people are dying from lack of something as basic as food when, as an international community, we are far more prosperous than we have ever been before? 

In an article about the failures of the humanitarian system in addressing issues such as these, Suzanne Dvorak, CEO of Save the Children, has the following to say.

Two tragedies are unfolding in the Horn of Africa. The first is the very visible tragedy of families who have walked for weeks, their children growing weak with hunger, desperate for our help. Then there is the larger tragedy of a failing humanitarian system built around responding to emergencies, not preventing them.

But by the time it makes the evening news, it’s too late. What is doubly frustrating is that by acting earlier we could have had far more effect for much less money. The UN estimates that every $1 spent in prevention saves $7 in emergency spending. … We need to provide help now. But we cannot forget that these children are wasting away in a disaster that we could – and should – have prevented.

What is becoming increasingly apparent is that these tragedies are preventible, particularly so in today’s world where we have the wealth, technology and infrastructure to address these global problems in a manner that we might not have been able to a century ago.

In the Hidden Words, Baha’u’llah writes:

O Ye Rich Ones on Earth! The poor in your midst are My trust; guard ye My trust, and be not intent only on your own ease.

It is a lack of the recognition of the oneness of humanity that allows richer societies and their leaders to sit silently by and allow for these human tragedies – preventible in this day and age – to occur time and again. These global problems are physical symptoms of what are ultimately spiritual ailments – a lack of love, a lack of justice, a lack of unity and a lack of a “world-embracing vision”.

While it is heartening to see so many dedicated and well-intentioned people and organisations unite to alleviate poverty and starvation, it is important to remember that these problems – ultimately – cannot be effectively addressed without acknowledging their spiritual basis.


About the Author

In her professional life, Preethi has dabbled in various combinations of education, community development and law. At heart, though, she's an overgrown child who thinks the world is one giant playground. She's currently on a quest to make learning come alive for young people and to bring the world's stories and cultures to them, with educational resources from One Story Learning.

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Discussion 2 Comments

  1. And how much so in this specific case!

    Southern Somalia has been the region most badly affected by famine. The region is controlled by an Al-Qaida-aligned militia group named Al-Shabab who until this month banned aid agencies from acting in the areas under their control. The US has been bombing this area, which has unfortunately made locals and Al-Shabab members mistrustful of international humanitarian organisations. The Age reports that the recruitment of child soldiers has intensified as the condition of Somalia (both in terms of violence and famine) deteriorates: http://www.theage.com.au/world/somalia-militias-recruiting-famines-children-20110721-1hqsq.html I somehow doubt that, if all the groups involved regarded the “earth as but one country and mankind its citizens” as Baha’u’llah tells us, whether all this suffering would be taking place!

    You have only to look to the cases of England, Japan and Korea (and I’m sure there are many more examples!) to see the difference a government who cares about their citizens can make to a country within a short space of time. Japan and Korea, for example, were famine-struck throughout World War 2, and have since become two of the world’s strongest economies. Early twentieth century Japan was based on a feudal system, with a large gap between rich and poor, while today it arguably has one of the smallest gaps between rich and poor in the world. On the other hand, Zimbabwe transformed within a short space of time from the “breadbasket of Africa” to a country plagued by starvation and financial ruin. This was arguably the product of a government that cared little for its citizens.
    Abdu’l Baha’s “Secret of Divine Civilization” expounds this idea beautifully.

  2. Thanks for the article.

    i agree and i disagree with the idea of this article since i live in Ethiopia which is on the horn of Africa. what you have posted is true, i agree with that, but i completely disagree with the idea of famine accepting it as result of spiritual poverty in which when we see the lives of the so called the prophets, they lived with extreme poverty, and in cases with famine, but the bring profound ideas to the progress and betterment of the world. And i think, one of the factors for such difficulty situation in the world is the greed and lack of culture of aid and assistance people should have towards each other in which compassion and kindness is the key factor in here. We live in a world in which theory and the fundamental philosophy in terms of economy in here is that resource is scarce in which few people are designed to be rich, and the mass is oblige to live under the grace and mercy of such deliberations. While such drama of life is going on, there are certain complications we inherit from the past, and we should struggle to win as result of our efforts and choices we make and thus, as one of the things in here is famine, though they claim, shortage of food, but it is just a dictionary, the impact and the reality is …there are people who have no food for the day.


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