“As a doctor in Sudan, let me tell you: foreign aid saves lives”
By Tom Catena
As originally published in The Guardian, Saturday, May 27th, 2017 at 19:05 EDT
My heart sank last week when President Trump announced proposed cuts in the diplomatic and foreign aid budget. The budget suggests cuts in aid to international organizations by 44%, humanitarian assistance funding would drop by 31% and global health programs would be cut by 25%. While many people think the budget has little chance of passing in Congress, it does, however, provide an alarming sense of the Trump administration’s priorities.
But its not just a US concern. Earlier this month, the Australian government announced it will cut $303m from the foreign aid budget over two years. In the UK, Theresa May’s pledge to continue meeting the UN’s 0.7% aid target was a great relief, although this good news has since been tarnished by the claim that poverty reduction in the world’s poorest countries risks being diluted by the UK government devoting a bigger share of its aid budget to pursuing the national interest.
This comes at a time when the world faces its worst humanitarian crisis since 1945, according to the UN. Twenty million people face starvation without an immediate injection of funds in Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia, and Nigeria.
I keenly observe these developments, not as part of the international aid community but as someone who sees the desperate need for aid every waking hour of the day. Since 2007, I have been the only doctor permanently based in Sudan’s Nuba Mountains, home to 750,000 people. It is also a conflict zone. War has raged since 2011 between the Government of Sudan, and the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement.
The people of this region have suffered beyond belief, with aerial bombardments a daily occurrence for years. Villages and farms have been targeted, forcing the population to flee into the mountains, where they have little or no food. I have experienced the atrocities and hardships of this war, firsthand. I regularly treat up to 400 people a day. Adults and children with horrific burns across their bodies, toddlers with lost limbs due to shrapnel wounds and people suffering from leprosy or malnutrition.
We don’t have access to medical technology. Supplies are limited. We use decades-old treatments and often don’t have electricity or running water. We don’t even have reliable telephones. But I’m always on call, delivering babies, treating cancer, training my staff and, all too often, repairing the wounds inflicted by war, using what few resources we have, and with support from my incredible team.
The bombardments have stopped for now, but the suffering of the people remains. The biggest problem is a severe shortage of food. We are on the border with South Sudan and we suffer the same famine conditions and government forces have blocked the routes for food and aid. It is a truly desperate situation.
The sad truth is that most world leaders and humanitarian organizations have virtually abandoned the people of the Nuba Mountains. Most types of foreign aid are non-existent. I am needed here just as much, if not more so, as I was when I came here in 2007; so is the support of the international community.
Only seven countries meet the 0.7% of global national income target for aid. Countries that should be at the forefront of efforts to prevent catastrophes such as famine and to relieve the effects of drought on some of the world’s poorest people are turning a blind eye. This sends a worrying message that leading economies are no longer interested in being part of efforts to mitigate suffering.
Part of the problem is that the narrative needs to change. Foreign aid has become a politically divisive issue. People assume the money is misspent, wasted on bureaucracy or that foreign aid just doesn’t work.
Of course, the system is far from perfect. In an ideal world, it would not just be about how much is spent to fix the immediate problems, but, rather, about the impact aid has on sustaining stable governments, tackling corruption, protecting human rights and the rule of law. Nonetheless, in the short term, I see what a positive impact humanitarian aid can have. It can literally make the difference between life and death.
There are people doing incredible work around the world every day to help preserve human life. These are not people tied to the international aid system, but people who independently tackle the needs of the most helpless and destitute and do so at great risk.
But individuals cannot tend to the world’s afflicted alone. The international community must provide the resources to help us better serve the people who need our services. At a time when famine is reaching a crisis point in parts of Africa, and countless children are dying of starvation, the need for support from the world’s richest nations is even more critical.
The opinions expressed by Dr. Tom Catena are his own. Dr. Tom Catena is the only doctor in Sudan’s Nuba Mountains; he is a finalist for the 2017 Aurora humanitarian prize.