by Winnie Byanyima
As famous footballers from across the globe are competing for the World Cup in Brazil, millions of fans from Africa are among the 3.2 billion tuning in to watch the competition. Football-enthused African children are also glued to their TVs, dreaming of World Cup glory.
For many of these young fans living in conflict zones, a World Cup match is a temporary means of escape, just like a neighborhood game. When the match is over, away from the focus of the world’s cameras, millions will go back to face again the harsh realities of conflict. These are the children of our world’s forgotten crises.
With 500,000 soccer fans at the World Cup to witness the hopeful glory of their teams, Brazil has employed 170,000 security personnel. That is almost five times as many peacekeepers the United Nations has deployed to protect civilians caught up in the conflicts engulfing South Sudan, Sudan and the Central African Republic.
In the world’s newest nation, South Sudan, thousands have been killed and 1.5 million have had to flee for their lives – that’s nearly three times the number of fans at the World Cup. It is also here where more than 7 million people face not having enough food to eat, while almost 3 million others are in crisis in Somalia, 2.5 million in the Central African Republic and over 6 million in Sudan. Combined, that’s more than every citizen of the Netherlands, including their star footballer van Persie.
Hunger means conflict
One of the main reasons people don’t have enough food to eat is because of these conflicts. “The UN estimates that $2.2 billion is needed to prevent hunger and starvation in South Sudan, Sudan, Somalia and the Central African Republic. From hotdogs to hotels, football fans in Brazil will spend all that, plus an additional billion dollars during the course of the World Cup. In light of this, it is unconscionable that world leaders can’t find enough money to help those suffering in these crises.
These conflicts need to end so that people can return to their homes and rebuild their lives. Conflicts don’t just ignite overnight. The African Union’s Peace and Security Council has measures in place that warn of conflict. If we can measure them, we can prevent them too. But riven by politics, the Peace and Security Council often makes loose proclamations instead of taking firm actions to intervene. The African Union needs to take bold steps to silence the guns, as they have so often promised to do.
Africans are taking action
African citizens are pitching in, refusing to watch all this from the side lines. Despite the fighting that broke out six months ago in South Sudan, many people there have gone above and beyond to help others, regardless of ethnicity. Fourteen African leaders have publically demanded South Sudan’s President Kiir and Vice President Machar stop the bloodshed. In Somalia, civil society organizations warn that people there are living far below acceptable living standards.
And in a bid to raise awareness for the crises, Africans Act 4 Africa are hosting football matches across Africa today as a sign of solidarity with their brothers and sisters in South Sudan, Sudan, Somalia and the Central African Republic. Since football is a universal language, we can enjoy the World Cup and at the same time stand in solidarity with those who need a leg up.
It’s not too late…
Three years ago, the world failed to prevent famine in the Horn of Africa. Afterwards, Europe’s humanitarian aid boss, Kristalina Georgieva, said that “too often the massive response comes when the crisis is already deepening and on the six o’clock news.” So, as we follow the football matches and see the goals replayed time and again on big screens, we should spare a thought for those out of the spotlight.
It’s not too late to prevent famine in South Sudan or stop the conflicts in Sudan, Somalia and the Central African Republic from worsening. We can save lives by getting people the help they need and by pressuring world leaders to lend their weight to end these conflicts.
We know from experience we don’t get extra time. The African Union and the international community need to get off the bench and get in the game. Now.
Winnie Byanyima is Oxfam International Executive Director.