“Don’t reconvert plowshares into swords”
LWF General Secretary Rev. Dr Martin Junge about the famine alert in East Africa and Nigeria, the arms race and migration
(LWI) On March 16, the United Nations issued an alert, drawing attention to the famine in South Sudan, Somalia, Yemen and Nigeria. The Lutheran World Federation (LWF) is present with member churches and humanitarian programmes in some of those countries. In an interview with Lutheran World Information, LWF General Secretary Rev. Dr Martin Junge, talks about the situation on the ground, migration and why churches need to advocate against more military spending.
Lutheran World Information (LWI): What kind of news do you receive from member churches and the humanitarian operations in the field?
Rev Dr Martin Junge: The news we get are very disturbing. Millions of people are at risk of starvation, particularly the most vulnerable. We hear how much conflict is at the source of this famine, which has prevented entire communities from farming the land and is now causing their displacement. The situation is aggravated by climate change, we hear about failing rains in arid, semi-arid and even moderate regions.
Our member churches in Ethiopia, Kenya and Nigeria are looking into ways to respond pastorally and with diaconal services, These countries and people are directly affected by this crisis. The LWF Department for World Service is responding to the South Sudan crisis, in South Sudan and in neighboring Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda. The program in Djibouti is receiving refugees from Yemen. Especially the hundreds of thousands arriving in Uganda from South Sudan are in very poor condition: malnourished, exhausted and traumatized.
We are grateful for the UN issuing this alert. It gives the international community time to respond and to avoid a catastrophe like the drought in Somalia in 2011. Then the alert came late and 250,000 people died. The early famine alert is a lesson learnt after that.
LWI: The famine alert comes at a time when there are 65.3 million people forcibly displaced worldwide, an unprecedented number. How could the international community respond to this additional challenge?
Rev Dr Martin Junge: It is true that 65.3 million forcibly displaced people is unprecedented. But if the community of states was able to respond in 1945 with 50 million refugees and internally displaced people, coming out of two world wars, and with economies destroyed, why shouldn’t it be able to respond today, when there is so much wealth in the world? Even though economies are challenged today, they are not destroyed as they were in 1945.
We also have to better understand the reasons for forced displacement: conflict, growing and untenable inequalities, natural disaster caused by climate change. As long as these issues are there, there shouldn’t be any surprise that people will seek protection and sustainable conditions for their lives.
I believe that the response to the current challenges posed by migration and displacement is not a question of capacity, but of political will. Uganda has so far taken in more than 800,000 refugees from South Sudan. At peak times, there are 3,000 or more arriving per day! They are granted asylum and given a plot of land in Uganda, the host communities have been extremely welcoming although their resources are stretched. At the same time, we hear that European Union member states have failed to resettle 3,000 refugees per month!
The UN system is challenged by the magnitude of this crisis, but it has systems and capacities in place to respond if funding is made available. Our programs are doing excellent work, but it is woefully inadequate in the face of these numbers. What has been given to the refugee response is not anywhere enough.
The passage from John 17 comes to my mind, reminding us that while we are not of the world, we are sent into the world to witness to God. As churches we need to hold fast to what God calls the church to be in such a situation: God asks to stand with the poor and the oppressed, and to alleviate human suffering. We are called to continue serving people as a matter of faith.
LWI: You say those resources are available?
Rev Dr Martin Junge: Of course they are. The example of Uganda shows us that political will leverages finances. The challenge today is not a lack of resources, it is the priorities: NATO States are discussing to meet the benchmark of 2 percent expenditure for “defense”. Powerful nations like the USA and China are announcing large budgetary increases for their military expenditure. Yet, will any of the root-causes of migration be addressed by such additional expenditure? Investing in military spending will not solve those conflicts, inequality or natural disaster and climate change.
Instead, I believe the priority needed to be in meeting the target of raising official development assistance (ODA) to 0.7 percent of the national budget, which was first agreed to by OECD states in 1970, and reaffirmed in 2005 also by EU and UN member states. Yet, nobody is talking about this. Even worse, We even hear that in some cases the ODA is being re-directed to fund in-country refugee response. This is extremely shortsighted as it leaves root-causes unaddressed, and even exacerbates them. I believe this is a time for churches to stand up and advocate: Don’t reconvert ploughshares into swords! (Micah 4,3)
LWI: What else can churches do?
Rev Dr Martin Junge: The passage from John 17 comes to my mind, reminding us that while we are not of the world, we are sent into the world to witness to God. As churches we need to hold fast to what God calls the church to be in such a situation: God asks to stand with the poor and the oppressed, and to alleviate human suffering. We are called to continue serving people as a matter of faith. I am encouraged to see so many examples, where churches are steadfast in this witness, even when they are being criticized and rejected for that.
As churches, we need to advocate with governments and global leaders to get the priorities right. More efforts need to go into preventing conflicts in an effective way, and to resolve the conflicts which are forcing millions out of their homes. We need to address climate change which increasingly causes natural disaster, and consequently poverty and displacement.
Above all, more needs to be invested not in more arms but in more justice within the human family. And in view of the alert of famine: more support needs to be allocated to respond to this crisis that puts millions of people at risk, if not smoothly and adequately addressed.