Isn’t 30 Years Enough to Learn How to Prevent Catastrophes Like the East African Drought?

I’ll admit it: I’m a child of the 80s. I’ve got fond memories of Expo 88, and I can still sing the theme songs of She-Ra, Inspector Gadget, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and The Smurfs.

Punky Brewster was my hero. I owned a hypercolor t-shirt, and I wore it tucked into my “happy pants”—think everything you’ve ever seen of MC Hammer, but on a five-year-old.

It’s funny how the 80s legacy lives on, for better or worse. I got more than a little bit excited when Cold Chisel announced their comeback tour this year, and I’ll always be fascinated by Rubik’s Cubes.

And it seems my mum was right when she told me that fashions always go in cycles—although I just can’t bring myself to embrace high-waisted jeans a second time. But it’s not just clothes that seem to have cycled around again.

One of the defining characteristics of the 80s was the “greed is good” mantra that infiltrated consumer psyches across the Western world. It’s no coincidence that one of the most significant events of the decade was the stock market crash of 1987, which devastated households, companies and economies around the world—or that this episode in our history was shortly followed by the infamous recession “we had to have” of the early 1990s. And yet, it seems we still haven’t learnt the lesson.

Greed, say observers including former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, the Archbishop Canterbury and the head of the Reserve Bank of Australia, was at the core of the Global Financial Crisis that hit in 2008 and is still reverberating now.

Despite human experience ranging from King David all the way through to Gordon Gekko proving that it would be better relegated to the pages of history (along with shoulder pads), greed came back in fashion this decade, and we are all living with the consequences.

The most disturbing return to the 80s is without doubt the horrifying stories of African mothers walking for days through the desert to beg a handful of grain; of tinder-dry crops and emaciated cattle shriveling under a merciless sun; of children dying for want of food as the world looks on through their big screen TVs.

Again, consecutive seasons of drought in East Africa have laid bare a region mired in poverty, neglect, instability and conflict, leaving 12.4 million people—more than half the Australian population—at the brink of survival.

The television images of Ethiopian children with withered, ancient faces that I remember seeing as a kid in 1984 are back, and just like before, they play second fiddle in our media to news about the latest politician faux pas and celebrity wedding.

How—in a world where junk food, alcohol and cigarettes are among the leading causes of death—are we here again? Have 30 years not been enough to learn how to prevent catastrophes like this?

The fact is, there is enough food produced to feed everyone living right now on Planet Earth—but one in seven people in the world do not have enough to eat.

The reasons why 12.4 million East Africans are facing starvation are complex, but while the drought is the result of not enough rain, experts tell us the famine is man-made.

Self-interest—of local authorities, of inefficient governments, of the architects of an unjust world trade system, and of all of us who have passively accepted it—is again at the core.

Yet, 30 years on, some things have changed. I was a child in the 80s, but now I have a child of my own—though thankfully, she is not old enough to insist on wearing high-waisted jeans. I want her to grow up in a world that has learnt its lesson; that understands that greed is not good. And I am not alone.

The Australian Government pledged $60 million in emergency relief, then boosted it to $80 million. Everyday Australians have added another $10 million of their own. Blog sites like this one have done their bit to get people talking and reaching into their pockets.

Tens of thousands of Australians have chosen to sponsor a child in East Africa, helping to reduce the vulnerability and build the resilience of no less than 32,932 children through year-round nutrition, health, education and income generation support.

This is our time to do things differently than we have in the past; to make sure this is one part of our era that won’t cycle around again. What will you do?

This post originally appeared on as Child of the 80s. Sponsor a child through Compassion Australia.

The 1980s graphic is courtesy of Kenny Dodge.

4 Comments |Add a comment

  1. Jeff October 27, 2011

    The famine that is referenced in this article (1984 era) was a result of Communists trying to starve out insurgents.

    Food (or lack thereof) was used as a deliberate weapon.

    1. Elissa Webster November 1, 2011

      Exactly – and that’s why I believe our response to poverty and injustice needs to be focused on holistic development, such as Compassion supports through child sponsorship, not just provision of food.

  2. Ryan October 27, 2011

    Thanks for this difficult word. My question is concerns the actions we can take to prevent something like this from happening again in thirty or fifty years. I am a huge supporter of compassion and child sponsorship, and giving financially where there is need. But I also understand that problems like these cannot be solved merely by giving money. What steps can we take to make life more sustainable in places like Ethiopia and East Africa? How can we take steps towards preventing another famine years from now?

    1. Elissa Webster November 1, 2011

      I think the most important things we in the West can do are understand the issues, then open our mouths as well as our wallets. Investing in long-term developing, such as through child sponsorship, as well as emergency relief in nations suffering from famine is crucial. But so is speaking out against the acts of injustice that trigger them. Compassion’s Child Advocate Network (visit is a great place to start finding out how to make your voice heard by politicians, corporations, the media and the people around you. You can make sure you’re everyday purchases contribute to development rather than exploitation by buying Fairtrade. And you can read more about what causes hunger on the World Food Program’s website ( and the issues underlying the Africa famine in this article in The Guardian ( and this one in The UN’s Africa Renewal magazine (

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