Heading out to Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya, I heard a remix of We are the World played on the morning news. It triggered memories of sitting on a mat as a 5-year-old primary pupil as we sang the Michael Jackson-Lionel Richie song for the starving people of Ethiopia during the 1984-85 famine.

It brought home the absurdity of finding myself, 27 years later, in Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya near the Somali border, where hundreds of thousands again face starvation - a remix of yet another famine.

In the same three decades, the world has undergone an unprecedented period of globalised economic growth and innovation in communications, trade and finance.

But standing among the masses of Somali refugees forced to call Dadaab home, that growth doesn't appear to be so global after all. There is little trace of progress among the dust-covered white tents, stretching out before me in every direction.


The strong, hot wind never stops blowing. The sand and fine dust gets in your eyes, mouth and into your chest. There's a constant rhythm of children coughing. Mothers try to rinse their children clean but it seems impossible.

The refugee camp is not the future anyone would hope for their children. It is an unjust and undignified existence for people who have lost their land, their livelihoods and their independence, but for the people here there is no choice.

Every person I ask says they will never return to Somalia. Instead a dry, dusty desert, where they are packed together in tents only metres away from their neighbours, is still more attractive than their drought-stricken, lawless homeland where for two decades they have been robbed of basic rights to food, water and shelter. Here at least they have a reliable supply of clean, safe drinking water, shelter and a precious ration card that ensures there will be more food coming to them every 15 days, but it's still not enough.

I don't know what it feels like to be hungry, so hungry that any other discomfort pales in comparison with the need to eat and have enough food to prepare a meal for your children.

Today, 30-year-old Hebiba Noor Dizhwah finished bathing her 1-year-boy, Aden, who was too weak to hold his head up, and showed me her bag of maize that was supposed to last her family for two weeks. But, after just three days, it is two-thirds empty.

Humanitarian organisations are calling on continued global assistance to meet the needs of the more than 12 million people already affected severely by this crisis.

Despite generous pledges of money from some rich governments and donors, their help is failing to keep pace with the level of need.

Famines are a thing of the past on every other continent, with the exception of Kim Jong Il's North Korea. East Asia's last famine was in the 1960s, South Asia's in the 70s and Europe hasn't had a famine in more than 60 years. Yet famine has been declared in five areas of Somalia.


It is all too easy to dismiss the crisis as an inevitable fact of life here in sub-Saharan Africa, but it is not only the drought that's to blame.

As well as the repeated failure of the rains, political neglect of smallholder farmers throughout the region lies behind the crisis. It is no coincidence that the worst affected areas are the poorest, least developed and most neglected, lacking the basic infrastructure such as water systems, roads and healthcare.

But there is hope. In Somalia, Oxfam and local Somali partner organisations operate the largest public-health programme in the country, providing clean water to 300,000 displaced Somalis in camps outside Mogadishu.

Our partners operate the largest therapeutic food programme for children and mothers, admitting 3000 malnourished children every week. The aim is to reach 1.2 million people in Somalia, and 3 million throughout the region, by the end of the year.

Beyond Somalia, there is a need for emergency food, water and sanitation for rural communities in northern Kenya and southern Ethiopia.

There is still time to help people in their villages and prevent more deaths. In the hard-hit Kenyan region of Turkana, boreholes and solar water pumps save communities from having to spend meagre incomes on high-priced fuel for pumping water during dry months. Every drop of water is used, with run-off used to irrigate vegetable gardens.

We can build successes, as we have been doing, even in Somalia. This famine must be a wake-up call to governments and the international community to address the issues that make people vulnerable to hunger in the first place. In a world with enough to eat, there is no good reason why anyone should go hungry.

* New Zealander Janna Hamilton spent two weeks in Dadaab for Oxfam International.