Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Amy Winehouse, Norway and Somalia

Every day, worldwide, around 200,000 people die. Last weekend, hundreds of these were in Somalia and Ethiopia, or in the camps in northern Kenya where more and more starving refugees are turning up, looking for food. It’s been noticed and reported on by the world media, but it’s not up there in the headlines with the Greek bailout or the American budget crisis.

76 people died in Norway on Friday, killed by Anders Brehving Breivik. The bombing and shooting carried out by one right-wing fanatic dominated the world headlines.

Until Saturday, when the death of Amy Winehouse, a twenty-seven year old singer, addicted to alcohol and other drugs, took the top place in many newspapers and TV news reports.

The death of one person is experienced as a tragedy. The sudden, violent death of many is seen as a catastrophe. The deaths of thousands are perceived as a statistic, part of the way of the world.

Yet there are other differences between the deaths of Amy Winehouse and the massacre in Oslo and Utøya on the one hand, and the daily dying going on in East Africa on the other.

In the first place, there was little anyone could do to avoid the first two. Amy Winehouse was a tragic addict and addiction, particularly the polytoximanic form with which she was afflicted, is generally fatal unless the sufferer him or herself finally faces the consequences and takes that first necessary step – the admittance of one’s own powerlessness and the sincere decision to seek and accept help. Amy, unfortunately hadn’t reached that point before her body – in common with others such as Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin or Brian Jones, at the age of 27 – finally gave up under the strain of diverse poisons.

Anders Breivik, according to all the accounts up to now, seems to have been a solitary psychopath. While there has been, and will be, all kinds of speculation about what could have been done to realise how close this particular psychopath was to finally unleashing his particular version of horror on society, it remains a sad fact of life that a free society will always remain marginally vulnerable to such risks – as was the case with Thomas Hamilton in Dunblane, Scotland in 1996, or with Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber. Difficult though it may be for us to accept, the very freedom which we regard as a fundament of our society gives rise to the space in which such perverted personalities can find room to develop and plan their atrocities. Most of them are, thankfully, too stupid or too obviously weird to allow them to carry through their planning and execution before they are discovered and stopped, but we will probably never be able to protect ourselves completely from the cleverest and luckiest of them; not without abandoning our basic principles of freedom and decency in favour of totalitarian state control (even if it worked, which it doesn’t).

The famine in Somalia (and, to a lesser extent, in Ethiopia and Kenya), in contrast, has been a tragedy which is twenty years in the making and which many of those familiar with the area have been foretelling for years. There has been no effective government in the country since 1991. The current crisis is the result of a combination of failing rains (something which frequently occurs in this region), the longer-term consequences of overgrazing and deforestation by subsistence farmers who have had no other choice it they wish to survive from day to day and political failure and corruption, ideological idiocy and a series of supremely hypocritical and morally bankrupt policies followed by all the local, regional and global powers who have ever been involved with the place – from the local Islamicist criminals controlling large areas of the country to the various world powers whose only basic interest is the protection of their shipping interests through naval patrols from desperate pirates operating from this wreck of a former country.

In the West, we bear a large part of the responsibility for what is happening in Somalia now. Our interests in getting fuel from the Persian Gulf and cars and consumer electronics from Asia securely to our markets mean that we are prepared to send warships to the Indian Ocean before the Somali coast without ever asking why desperate men decide to attack cargo ships in the first place. Because their country has been wrecked by colonialism and post-colonialism and, following the end of the proxy wars carried out worldwide between the US and Soviet Empires up to the end of the 80s, been left in chaos as easy booty for gangs, criminals and religious fanatics. If your whole society is controlled by criminals and offers you no security for yourself and your family, what should dissuade you from being criminal yourself, if that’s the only way to survive? The west is responsible at other levels too. The cost of food has been rising steeply for the past couple of years, partly because we have been prepared to pay more for renewable fuels to feed our greed for energy and thus encouraged farmers to grow cash crops for fuel rather than food. And this is only the tip of a rotten iceberg which also includes monoculture, agri-combines, gene patenting, subventions, big business, a hunger for ever more meat rather than vegetables and grains, etc. The wonderful results of a markets-driven global economy which leaves the poorest unable to afford to pay the current market price for subsistence food, even if it were available where it was needed.

It has happened before and we were warned that it would happen again if there weren’t substantial changes in the way we do things. And, like in 1985 with Live Aid and all the other reactions that time to the famine in Ethiopia, we will see reports of starving children on TV and will donate to the various NGOs and semi-official agencies, from the Red Cross and Crescent, to the FAO, to Médecins Sans Frontières. And some of that help will actually get to those who need it, despite administrative costs, and bungling, and corruption, and politics, and robbery. And next year or the year after the rains will come again and Somalia will fade once more from our public collective consciousness – until the next time.

The aftermath of the death of Amy Winehouse and the massacres in Norway may even bring positive results. If Amy’s death focuses more attention on the plight of addicts and some serious public discussion of the diseases of alcohol and substance addiction, then that will do some good. Norwegian public society has already spontaneously reacted to Breivik’s madness by spontaneously reiterating its commitment to the values of a liberal, humanistic, democratic society. The very horror evoked by the massacre – and the dangerous, crazy ideas which provoked it – will hopefully cause many in Western Europe to look again at their flirtation with the simplistic exclusivist racist pseudo-solutions offered by right-wing populists whose following has been increasing in the past decade. To realise that their societies have become irrevocably multicultural in the past quarter of a century and to see the future in dialogue and integration rather than exclusion and discrimination. To once more assert and affirm their commitment to pluralism and tolerance – and, in this context, to challenge sub-cultures (like the various Islamic-ethnic ones throughout Europe) to affirm their commitment to these values as well, without demanding that they give up their identities.

But I see little hope for any real change as a result of the calamity emerging in the Horn of Africa. Thousands will die, many more will suffer, some will be saved as a result of aid. But, unless we start to look at the way we run our world (or allow it to be run for us) on a much deeper level, it will happen again and again.

Globalisation has become an accepted fact in the past twenty years. But it means more than just being able to buy a cheap TV or smartphone, assembled from parts bought all over the world on the other side of the globe, being able to buy flowers cut yesterday in Kenya or eat strawberries in January. It also means that we are all interconnected, in all sorts of ways, with everybody else. And that means that we too are, at some level, responsible for the fact that those children are starving in Somalia. And that won’t change unless we realise that responsibility and do something about it.

Like demanding of our politicians and public representatives that they apply the principles they so often praise in our own societies to our international doings world-wide. Like looking at the values which really drive us as opposed to those which we profess. Like accepting – individually and communally – that we are responsible for the consequences of our actions and our inactions.

I’m not all that very hopeful.

Pictures retrieved from:


  1. My heart is so heavy. This is the world I live in. I've done my share to help. I worked with drug addicts. I've taught and practiced tolerance. I've been involved in feeding Africa. Now I'm an old lady. I can say: Thank God, I'll be gone soon. But this is the world I'm leaving to my grandchildren. My heart is so heavy. It's hard to let it go. What else can we do? Eradicate ignorance. Open people's eyes. Try to find solutions.

    Allow me to share your deeply compassionate Essay with my Facebook friends and family, hoping that it will be read and understood. Thank you for writing it.

    My heart, my tears and my prayers are with Amy's parents, Somalia and Norway. I am my brothers'
    keeper. May God sustain us all.

  2. Claude, by all means feel free to repost this on FB - I would be honoured.

    It is often difficult not to succumb to cynicism and despair, sometimes hope is the only thing we have to keep us going.

    By the way, nice to have you commenting again ... :-)

  3. It's sad that while so many people hang on to their lives by a thread, someone with fame, money and talent throws theirs away. :-(

  4. Hi Francis, I did see a special report on this issue in Africa tonight on world news with Diane Sawyer and I was deeply touched. How we do take our precious lives for granted, just being able to eat everyday. I will forever "hope" that more attention is given to this cause to help end this suffering.

  5. What can one say Francis. As ever you put the case far better than I could.

    Here's hoping that enough aid will get to those who desperately need it

  6. This article was disturbing. The picture at the top was disturbing. The budget "agreement" is disturbing. I am just utterly disturbed now.

  7. I really thought we were doing something to stop this kind of situation as I grew up. The truth now is that we were making it much worse. We grasped none of the nettles, one of which was population control through education and contraception.
    I can remember believing the 'domino theory' on SE Asia and hearing nothing of the continuing imperialist side.
    It's pretty obvious now that a hidden politburo has been governing us and democracy has been a sham.
    Thinking on the depressive side, I found myself buoyed up through the cricket win against India, even though I don't really care much. Maybe we need stories about slaying bankers instead of dragons?

  8. Just as I finished above it struck me we could have another kind of globalisation. Knowledge could be the global thing, with production made local. Somewhere in this, I fear we need some decent people with guns to do the initial policing. I can see the possibilities, but my hopes are low and I expect war.

  9. Back from my carefree holidays, I see that you keep up the already high levels you set on your blog. What a rich text indeed, and to answer to all your strains of thought would mean that I'd encumber the Comments space with a whole blog post myself. So I'll just write down some impressions that come to mind spontaneously.

    It is a shame that there are still so many people dying of hunger today, that's a fact. Our responsability is another fact, too. And your analysis of the political and economical undercurrents is so accurate that I guess there's nothing much to add. I'm deeply touched by the misery experienced in Africa and, like you, almost desperate to know, deep inside, that even if I gave away all my money to some NGO, that wouldn't solve the problem. The worst thing, the most frustrating one perhaps, is that people are even almost starving in our own countries. Never in history have there been so many riches in our countries and so many really poor people. It's Chanel-suits and Gucci-bags living next to homeless people. And never in history have people learned so well to look the other way.

    Of course, all of this is connected. The Greek crisis, European politicians (and politicians worldwide) being unable to find a just and sane solution; the programmed starvation in Somalia; the killing in Norway; even the death of Miss Whinehouse. All different sides of the same reality.

  10. I really appreciate Dieter's thoughtful comment, especially that he mentions hunger and homelessness in our own countries.

    Though I try to think globally and I keepup with the world's affairs as best I can, I feel that the only way I can get a grip on poverty and hunger is to act on a local level to do what I can: volunteer, donate to the local food bank and the local survival center which provides clothing and household items.

    Recently, there was an article in the Boston Globe (I live in Massachusetts) that spoke of concerns of ER personnel who are seeing more and more malnourished children.

    In summer, particularly, when school is not in session, many children are not getting enough to eat. Interestingly, studies point to early malnourishment leading to later adult obesity.

    In the U.S., with the Pentagon and Wall Street getting all the money for their self-serving purposes, things can only get worse for the hungry and homeless.

    If this is the case in a country like the U.S., what hope have we for solving the famine crisis globally?

    A dismal picture, indeed.


Your comments are, of course, welcome. I've had to reinstall captchas recently as - like most other bloggers - I was being plagued by spambots.


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