The cameras are rolling on another African disaster: Niger and its desperate, starving children have thrust the continent back into the global spotlight. And this tragedy has unfolded on the world's television screens even as leaders of the industrialized countries at the Group of Eight summit pledged a historic amount of debt relief and humanitarian aid to African countries.
Welcome tidings of the affluent world's largess have collided with yet another outstretched hand -- another cry for help -- from our continent. For Niger is not an isolated island of desperation; it lies within a sea of problems across Africa -- particularly the "forgotten emergencies" in poor countries or regions with little strategic or material appeal. Neighboring Mauritania and Mali, south Sudan, southern Africa -- all are "Nigers" waiting to happen.
In most cases, war or tyranny cannot be blamed -- just grinding poverty that forces half the continent to survive on less than a dollar a day, and the lethal overlay of HIV-AIDS that kills about 2 million Africans a year.
The U.N. World Food Program warned as long as nine months ago that Niger, already one of the world's poorest nations, was veering toward catastrophe -- pushed hard by severe drought and the worst plague of locusts in 15 years. But donors were attending to higher-profile crises; then came the Indian Ocean tsunami, which eclipsed Africa's misery on the world scene.
Now the anguish of Niger's children has spurred the outside world to act -- but it is too late for many. Must we wait for these heart-rending images of children dying before we mobilize? We in Africa wonder: Can the world outside see the human beings -- or the potential partners -- behind the unrelenting despair?
How can you absorb even the "everyday" bulletins from Africa that epitomize a continent of bottomless need: the 40 million children kept out of school by poverty; the chronic malnutrition that stunts up to half of all children; the regions, such as southern Africa, where in five years one in five children will be an AIDS orphan?
In southern Africa, the deadly combination of AIDS and food shortages is tearing through the social fabric and infrastructure of our countries -- cruelly reversing the remarkable gains of the post-apartheid era. Teachers, doctors and nurses are dying faster than we can train new ones. So many of our farmers -- close to 8 million -- have succumbed to AIDS that food insecurity is growing even when the rains fall as they should.
In many southern African countries, life expectancy has plunged some 20 years, to 19th-century levels (in Swaziland to a shocking 36 years). Sub-Saharan Africa will be home to 20 million AIDS orphans by 2010. What does their future hold?
Africans wonder: At what point do people out there declare "enough"? Or is the magnitude of this African "reality show" so overwhelming that the rest of the world simply tunes out?
We should also remember the times when millions of people from all over the globe did declare "enough" -- when people refused to stand by while others suffered and died.
I am proud to have belonged to the movement that sprang from within Africa itself to overcome the injustice of apartheid. We could not have won our battle without the steadfast support of our friends in the United States and elsewhere. AIDS is not the first seemingly implacable foe Africans have faced. We can -- with leadership and determination -- conquer this latest plague. To do so, we must muster the spiritual strength and vigor of the American civil rights movement and South Africa's anti-apartheid movement. We know we can count on our friends -- beyond Africa -- to heed our call to action. And we shall be there as partners.
We commend the commitment of donors to write off our governments' debts and to fund the fight against HIV-AIDS in Africa, especially with antiretroviral drugs. But just as with apartheid, one needs to hear the people. They tell us that medication alone will not win the battle. Most of the 30 million HIV-positive Africans don't have the basic nutrients to live fully, let alone ward off tuberculosis and other opportunistic diseases. Adequate food and nutrition are vital.
The same can be said for the broader goals of developing our societies to the point where they can successfully withstand the shocks of nature. Neither fighting HIV-AIDS nor educating our populations nor developing our countries to their capacity can be done on an empty stomach.
It is time to step up and heed the warning signs before the children of yet another "Niger" are catapulted onto the world stage by famine.
The writer, archbishop emeritus of Cape Town, South Africa, won the Nobel Peace Price in 1984 for his role in fighting apartheid. He wrote this column on behalf of the U.N. World Food Program.