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The humanitarian catastrophe Australians know nothing about

It's been described as the worst humanitarian disaster since World War II: up to 23 million people are at risk of starvation in a food security crisis that could soon become one of the worst famines in human history.

Yet for these people - spread across the desperately poor nations of Yemen, Nigeria, South Sudan, Somalia and and other East African countries - there have been no star-studded music videos or fundraising concerts.

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Facing the world's largest humanitarian crisis

The world's largest humanitarian crisis in 70 years is looming as three African countries are on brink of famine.

United Nations efforts to raise at least $4.4 billion in humanitarian aid from wealthy nations have fallen embarrassingly short. Western leaders - distracted by Donald Trump, terrorism, Middle Eastern turmoil and North Korea - have largely been silent. Normally generous private donors have kept their wallets shut.

Indeed, few Australians even know about the crisis.

New polling conducted for aid agency Caritas has found just 32 per cent of Australians are aware there is a major crisis unfolding in the region.

A third of respondents to last week's Essential Research poll said they knew nothing about the crisis and a further 29 per cent indicated they had heard there was a problem but did not know any details.

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When people were told there were up to 23 million people at risk, fewer than a quarter of the 1000 people polled said they would be prepared to donate.

Sixty-five per cent said they would not donate for a range of reasons, including a lack of money or preferring to support causes closer to Australia.

Caritas CEO Paul O'Callaghan has just travelled to Kenya - where three million people are at risk - in an effort to raise awareness among his donors.

He found once-productive farmland turned to wasteland by protracted drought. He saw children weakened by severe malnutrition. Distraught parents who can do little but ration their meagre supplies and pray for rain.

"Those kids will probably be dead by the end of the year," he says. "It's looking extremely bleak.

"We just haven't found - even across our normal donor base - there was much awareness of this even though we know our donors have very big hearts and would normally respond to something like this."

Chief among the problems is that the mainstream media has largely ignored the disaster. While this is a crisis of enormous scale that could ultimately kill millions of people it's a slow, creeping kind of death. There are no dramatic pictures of giant waves or flooded streets or flattened buildings.

"In 1984, the Ethiopian famine had a really huge response from the Australian community. It was a very large, private donation response - and that was sustained by saturation media coverage of that at the time," O'Callaghan says.

"What's different 30 years later?

"Without very regular and extensive coverage - particularly TV coverage - you just don't get the same cut-through. Even though I think the underlying generosity level is still very strong."

The UN has officially declared a famine in South Sudan. Somalia, Nigeria and Yemen are on the brink, declared when people have already started dying of hunger.

The Turnbull government - despite overseeing massive cuts to Australia's foreign aid program - has pledged about $68 million to address the crisis, with Foreign Minister Julie Bishop adding $19 million last month.

Not insignificant, but agencies like Caritas say it's well short of what's needed. Particularly given Europe, rocked by political upheaval, is not playing its usual leadership role in Africa. And given the Trump administration is planning on cutting more than a third from America's $30 billion aid program.

What about celebrity power? Where are the Bob Geldofs and the Bonos of the next generation?

"They managed to galvanise tens of millions of people around the world to get interested and to get active. And that lasted for a long time. But that sort of response just doesn't seem to be on the horizon now."

Fairfax Media's Matt Wade travelled to the region earlier this year and filed a series of reports on the disaster: Running on Empty.

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