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OXFAM Says 17 Million Need Food Aid in East, Central Africa

As an international conference on food aid gets underway in Madrid, the British aid agency Oxfam is warning that 17 million people require emergency food assistance in East and Central Africa. The figures are part of a broader report on the global food crisis, which the group says affects one billion people worldwide.

According to Oxfam, some 25 million people in the East and Central Africa region, which stretches from Sudan to the Democratic Republic of Congo to Tanzania, lack food security.

In Somalia, where nearly two decades of civil conflict show little sign of abating, more than 2.5 million people, nearly one-third of the population, require humanitarian assistance. In Eritrea, the agency says nearly 40 percent of the population has been affected by high food prices. In Djibouti, Burundi, and Kenya, over a quarter of the population faces food insecurity.

According to Oxfam's Deputy Regional Director, Fred Kwame, staple food prices have risen across the region in the past year while incomes have not, and rainfall in the last months of 2008 was less than expected.

"Everyone had hoped that the October to December rain would have helped to make things better, but unfortunately the rains did not come adequately," says Kwame. "This means that the next round of harvest for this year is not looking good; the picture doesn't look very good. And that is the more reason why governments aid agencies, international organizations, and communities should start working together to begin to plan contingency for when the harvest, or non-harvest occurs."

The group's Kenya country director, Philippa Tayor said the situation in Kenya is particularly concerning. A shortage of grain has left some 10 million people without food security, and the government recently said it would declare a food emergency. Kenya experienced 28 percent inflation in 2008, its highest level since 1994. And while food prices in many parts of the world have begun to fall from their peaks last year, Kenya has not seen a similar drop.

"That means that all of the money that was being spent on things like education, on alternatives to food such as their rent and everything else is having to be redirected to food, or they're going to have to cut down on food. If you look at the figures now and this is what is triggering the governments call, you will see that most of Kenya is now considered highly food insecure," says Tayor.

Kenya recently said it would import food from Tanzania, which unlike its neighbors has maintained adequate food security, according to Oxfam.

Oxfam's figures on East and Central Africa are part of a larger report on food security, which the group says affects a billion people worldwide. The report coincides with the opening of a two-day international conference on food security in Madrid.