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US politics keeping Canadians' attention off African famine: aid group

Last Updated Aug 17, 2017 at 3:30 pm PDT

In this April 5, 2017 file photo, Adel Bol, 20, cradles her 10-month-old daughter Akir Mayen at a food distribution site in Malualkuel, in the Northern Bahr el Ghazal region of South Sudan. A federal program to match donations for the East African famine generated $21.3 million from Canadians, International Development Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau announced Thursday. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Stringer, Photo, File

OTTAWA, ON. (NEWS 1130) – International Development Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau says a federal program to match donations for the East African famine generated $21.3 million from Canadians.

The amount is one of the smallest responses to a Canadian government matching donation program since they initiated the idea for the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004 — and at least one aid agency thinks the distraction of the political drama in the United States might bear some of the blame.

An estimated 20 million people face possible starvation in Somalia, South Sudan, Nigeria and Yemen in a drought and conflict-induced famine that a United Nations official has called the worst humanitarian crisis since the Second World War.

After the United Nations sought nearly $6.3 billion in urgent aid for the region, Bibeau announced the Famine Relief Fund would match dollar for dollar all donations to eligible organizations between March 17 and June 30.

The total raised was less than one-third of the $70.4 million Canadians donated in 2011 to the East Africa Drought Relief Fund, when about 9.5 million people were affected.

Nevertheless, Jessie Thomson, senior humanitarian director for CARE Canada, says the appeal worked and fundraising did spike thanks to the visibility the matching program added.

“I do think the matching fund served as a really powerful tool in mobilizing attention to the crisis that wouldn’t have been there otherwise,” she said.

The $21.3 million was actually more than she expected would be raised. CARE Canada was part of a group of seven Canadian aid groups which joined forces as the Humanitarian Coalition to raise funds, bringing in $8 million of the $21.3 million.

She said she is “pleasantly surprised” by the result.

The 2011 fund matched donations over about a two-month period, while this year the matching funds were provided for donations made over 3.5 months.

Visuals of Somali refugees pouring over the border every day into Kenya helped drive attention to the disaster in 2011, Thomson said. This time, getting people’s attention has been a lot harder as the daily dramas in U.S. politics are drowning everything else out.

“I think we’re competing with a lot of, you know, difficult and attention-grabbing stories coming out south of the border and I don’t know how you counter that,” she said. “That’s a reality but that is dominating the headlines.”

Canada has run matching donation programs for international disasters 12 times since 2004. The biggest response to date was for the Haiti earthquake in 2010 when Canadians donated $220 million which was matched by Ottawa.

The 2004 tsunami raised $213 million.

Only two of the 12 raised smaller amounts than the latest famine fund – $11 million in about five weeks for the Burma Cyclone Relief Fund in 2011 and $6.9 million for the Sahel Food Crisis Relief Fund over eight weeks in 2012.

Kira Froese, a senior communications manager with the Canadian Red Cross, said the agency refrains from comparing responses to different appeals.

“It can be difficult for us to say why some disasters raise more funds or get more attention than others,” she said.

A spokesman for Bibeau said the $21 million is a substantial amount and that “Canadians showed great generosity.”

The matching programs do not mean any organization that raises money will receive an exact matching amount. Rather organizations have to apply for the matching funds with detailed program plans.

Ten different aid agencies will share the $21.3 million in matching funds, Bibeau’s office said.

Thomson said CARE Canada is getting more than $4 million and will use it for a number of existing programs, including to help aid the cholera outbreak in Yemen and to help refugees in Uganda who have fled South Sudan.

-follow @mrabson on Twitter.