People carry away food and items in Regent town, Sierra Leone.
(photo credit: REUTERS/AFOLABI SOTUNDE)
Israel moved to swiftly deliver food aid to disaster-stricken Sierra Leone on Wednesday because it is the “right thing to do,” and because it shows the African countries that they can count on Israel in times of need, said Paul Hirschson, Israel’s envoy to Sierra Leone.
Hirschson, who serves as Israel’s nonresident envoy to a number of West African countries from Israel’s Embassy in Senegal, told The Jerusalem Post from Dakar that Israel was the first country to provide tangible assistance to the country, following devastating floods and mudslides earlier this week that claimed at least 300 lives, and left more than 3,000 people homeless.
The ambassador emphasized the importance of getting the aid into the country quickly, in order to illustrate to desperate citizens that help was on its way and there was reason for hope.
Hirschson said that within 24 hours of hearing from the country’s national security adviser that the country needed food for survivors, Israel had trucks with 20,000 portions of staples like beans and couscous in the capital of Freetown to distribute to those left homeless.
These supplies are expected to provide food for three days.
By being able to deliver the food so quickly, Hirschson said, “we are illustrating to the public that aid is getting through. When you are in these situations, the knowledge that you are not on your own is very important.” This is also important in terms of calming down the situation and ensuring that people don’t riot in search of staples, he said.
According to Hirschson, Israel contacted Sierra Leone with offers of assistance, not the other way around. Sierra Leone’s president, Ernest Bai Koroma, who was in Jerusalem in January, issued a general appeal to the world for assistance, and Hirschson proudly said that Israel was the first country to actually deliver something tangible.
Asked to explain Israel’s interest in wanting to send aid to the impoverished country, Hirschson said, “First of all, it is the right thing to do. We have the ability, and with a relatively small effort, and relatively small budget, we can make a big difference. That is the first and foremost reason.”
Beyond that, he said, “it is no secret that Israel has put a spotlight on our relations with Africa, and has identified Africa as a diplomatic priority – we believe there is a lot of mutual benefit that can be had in upgrading and improving relations.” This, he said, means standing with African states in difficult times.
“It is easy to stand with them when things are easy,” Hirschson said. “The question is whether you stand by them when things are hard.”
Hirschson pointed out that Sierra Leone was one of the 15 countries that make up the Economic Community of West African States, an organization that – for the first time in its history – invited a non-African head of government, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to address it in June at its summit meeting in Liberia.
“This type of invitation does not come out of the blue,” Hirschson said. “This is the first crisis that has happened since that meeting, and now is the time for us to say that we are with them in difficult times.”
Hirschson said that he was in contact with the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem immediately after the floods and mudslides hit on Monday, and it was decided to offer Israel’s aid. He then called Koroma’s national security adviser to discuss what could be done, and it was decided that the two most important aspects of any aid were immediacy and relevancy: to get the aid in as soon as possible, and to make sure that what is sent, is actually what is needed.
Following the food deliveries, the next stage of Israel’s assistance will be to provide antibiotics to deal with concerns of an outbreak of cholera, the envoy said.
Hirschson added that the Foreign Ministry was working closely with NGO IsraAID
, an Israeli-based humanitarian aid agency that responds to emergency crises, which has a small team on the ground in Sierra Leone.