Halima Hassan holds her severely malnourished son Abdulrahman Abshir, 7 months, at the Banadir hospital on August 14, 2011 in Mogadishu, Somalia.
Credit: John Moore

BOSTON — What can you do to help the millions starving in the Horn of Africa?


Send money, not stuff. Raise awareness among your friends. Support efforts to find long-term solutions, not just temporary fixes. This is the sound advice of aid experts as Africa's worsening famine continues its deadly march. 

The famine is of biblical sweep, affecting 12 million people across East Africa in Kenya, Ethiopia, Somalia, Uganda and Sudan. The East African region has experienced the most severe drought in 60 years. Some 29,000 children have died in the past three months. Worst hit is Somalia, where hundreds of thousands are desperate and children are dying daily from malnutrition and diarrhea.

The world knows about the famine thanks to heart-wrenching photos, videos and stories. Yet funds to help have been slow to come. The United Nations says that less than half the $2 billion it needs have been pledged.

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Many individuals are overwhelmed by the misery and don’t know what they can do. The more cynical just shrug and say there is nothing they can do.

The first thing is to send money. Many want to go through their closets and basements and donate old shoes and sheets and other items. Aid experts say that in emergencies like this famine, and the Haiti earthquake before it, money is the best way to get life-saving food and medicine to the people who need it. It doesn't need to be a large amount. A few dollars can save lives.

Next is to spread the word. Share reports and photos on Facebook, Twitter and other social media. Speak about it. This will boost general awareness of the famine and increase donations.

Where should the donations go? Take your pick of organizations.

The United Nations’ World Food Program and the High Commission for Refugees are doing extensive work on the ground. International charities are also providing food, medicine and other care. Oxfam International, Save the Children, Doctors Without Borders and Mercy Corps are just a few of the groups that have impressive track records of responding to cataclysmic emergencies. USAID also provides a list of organizations.

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Food, water, medicine and shelter are the immediate needs to help the hungry. New formulas of peanut butter with vitamins help children. Oral fluids with nutrients can bring back listless, malnourished children from the edge of death in a few hours.

The crowded refugee camps are breeding grounds for deadly outbreaks of cholera and measles. Vaccinations can help protect the young, old and vulnerable. These interventions are relatively cheap and easy to administer. A dollar can go a long way in saving lives.

Beyond the most urgent needs, there are many ways to help prevent the famine in the future. The U.S. supports the early-warning networks that identified the threat of famine a year ago. This enabled Kenya and Ethiopia to begin stockpiling food supplies and planning regional responses. The World Food Program and other groups are starting voucher programs that enable the hungry to buy food from local markets. Vouchers reduce corruption and support the private sector, ensuring merchants will operate in good years as well as bad.

More far-reaching projects help African farmers to keep their cattle, camels and goats alive. The livestock are crucial for the farmers to resume normal life. Other projects help farmers to adapt better to climate change and creeping deserts. A group called Feed the Future is researching ways to make crops more nutritious and drought-resistant, according to Bill Frist, a doctor and former majority leader of the U.S. Senate.

These long-range preventive plans can be very cost effective. Providing emergency food relief in a famine costs 7 times more than preventing a disaster, according to Oxfam International.

A famine is not just a random word used to alarm people. The United Nations and aid organizations only use the term famine when malnutrition rates exceed 30 percent, more than 2 people per 10,000 die each day, and there is a severe lack of food for a large population.

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The malnutrition rates in southern Somalia are now the highest in the world at more than 50 percent in some areas. The United Nations says that it is likely that tens of thousands of people have died already, mostly children.

But there is a great deal that each of us can do to help. So, in response to the enormity of the African famine: Be engaged. Raise awareness. Send money not stuff.

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