Against a backdrop of film-festival celebrity power, two pop music stars combined on the weekend to press Ottawa for extension of a matching aid program while calling on a well-connected audience to apply itself to the humanitarian crisis in Somalia.
Singers Bono and K'naan acknowledged in an appearance at the Toronto International Film Festival on Saturday that the plight of Somalia, with its dysfunctional government, active Islamist insurgency and feuding warlords, challenges the capacity of traditional famine relief efforts. And they nodded to skepticism about the ability of global organizations to conquer famine – while issuing an impassioned call to overcome it.
"We've been selling this magic trick that will end poverty – and I think people aren't buying it," Bono said. "It's time to be honest about the fight against extreme poverty. … We need to tell people how difficult it is and ask if people still want to be on for the ride."
K'naan revealed that he will establish the Somalia Legacy Fund next month to help with famine relief and support Somali-led projects to alleviate poverty, famine and health threats. Its first project will provide badly needed supplies to Mogadishu's Banadir Hospital, the only children's hospital in the country's capital.
In response to questions from The Globe and Mail at the event, K'naan said that the notion of donor fatigue is inconceivable in the face of a catastrophe that has claimed 30,000 Somali children over the past three months. "It's like saying that because I have loved before, I cannot love again," he said.
An estimated 11 million people have been affected by the famine in the East African countries of Somalia, Kenya and Ethiopia. According to some estimates, a child dies every six minutes in the affected areas.
The famine has been ravaging the region for months, yet it failed to truly register on Western governments, the press and the public until the past few weeks. In July, the federal government promised to match private donations until Sept. 16 under the East Africa Famine Relief Fund.
A spokesman for International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda, Justin Broekema, said Sunday that the program will not be extended because the money needs to be channelled promptly to relief efforts.
The government announced that the unofficial estimate for the matching funds is more than $20-million. But a report earlier this month said that Canadians had donated $35.8-million. In addition, the government contributed $72-million to various aid agencies in East Africa.
Robert Fox, executive director of Oxfam Canada, said that sustained publicity about the famine – highlighted by Bono's and K'naan's appearance on the weekend – is raising hopes for a late burst of donations prior to the expiration of the federal program.
"We really don't encounter donor fatigue; we encounter donor ignorance," Mr. Fox said. "Having the story move from Page 12 to Page 1 has had a huge impact."
K'naan, who recently visited his homeland, said there is hope that al-Shabab, a group of Islamist militants fighting to overthrow the government of Somalia, will lessen its attacks on aid workers in an effort to avoid being blamed for adding to the suffering of the Somali people.
Mr. Fox said that Oxfam has circumvented the terrorism problem by aligning itself with local groups who can deliver aid safely. "We know the communities and clans and how to get their help on the ground," he said.
Marie Eve Bertrand, a CARE Canada spokesman, said that while there are serious obstacles involved in getting aid to people in politically volatile regions, that is all the more reason for donors to step forward.
"We have been trying to make noise for a year about the situation in the Horn of Africa, but people were not listening much," she said. "It is really helping to have these celebrities stepping up."
Among the guests who heard Bono and K'naan speak were Frank McKenna, former premier of New Brunswick; Belinda Stronach, executive chairman of Magna International and former Liberal MP; Stephen Lewis, Canada's former UN Ambassador; and Gord Nixon, president and CEO of Royal Bank of Canada.
"K'naan was absolutely unbelievable," Mr. Nixon commented afterward. "Such a powerful, yet gentle, manner. And he didn't try to oversell the issue."
Bono noted the irony of addressing the issue of deadly famine over canapés and champagne, saying: "Celebrity is one of the most ridiculous modern concepts. It takes people who are spoiled, over-regarded and over-rewarded, and it makes heroes of us. It ignores firemen, mothers and nurses – people who are actually heroes.
"I know it's ridiculous, but it is currency, and I want to spend mine well," he said.
With a report from Jane Taber in Ottawa and Sarah Hampson in Toronto