Will the world do something on famine in East Africa?

The experts point out a sustainable solution for the future, but one also doubts a bit the magnitude of the current crisis.


1. What are the concrete steps the international community should take to avert even bigger crisis in the region?

2. Do you think the world will do something on this humanitarian catastrophe?


Rob Bailey, Senior Research Fellow, Energy, Environment & Resource Governance Royal Institute of International Affairs – Chatham House

1. Concrete steps the international community can take to avert an even bigger crisis in the region:

The first thing the international community can do is rapidly provide sufficient funds for the response. The UN appeals for the immediate needs of Somalia and Kenya are less than half funded according to the UN’s financial tracking service for example.

Within this, donors must also ensure that the type of funding is appropriate – for example making sure there is the right balance between food for distribution (where markets are not functioning and there is low availability of food), and cash funding for targeted cash distributions to help people quickly buy food when it is available, but priced out of their reach

The crucial ‘hunger gap’ period is likely to be from now until October, during which time the food security situation will deteriorate without relief, until pastures improve in October allowing a small harvest (a bigger harvest should be possible in January 2012). Therefore the International community can also look at helping the WFP to scale up logistics and supplies, and increase its caseload to get through this period.

Delivering emergency aid in this region is incredibly complex – national governments can take steps to make the work of humanitarian agencies as straightforward as possible – for example by minimising administrative burdens and red tape for humanitarian workers (eg visa requests, official permissions etc), guaranteeing access to humanitarian relief for affected populations and working with agencies to co-ordinate within their boarders, cooperating with relief agencies in the management and care of refugee flows etc.

The most difficult country is of course Somalia, where conflict has hugely exacerbated the impacts of the drought, and there is no effective state to help ensure access for relief workers and coordinate a response – the conflict has therefore made it much harder for humanitarian agencies to operate.

2. The world is already doing something – the UN appeals are just under half funded. The problem is that it is not yet enough – more funds are needed. The fact that the UN has declared a famine in Somalia should mean that the level of response will be increased, however many donor governments are struggling with fiscal deficits at the moment, so funds are not as readily available as we would like.

It is also important to think about why food crises are so frequent in this region of Africa. Droughts are unavoidable in the region, but food crises are not. Effective early warning systems allow us to predict a long time in advance when a food crisis is likely to happen – the current food crisis has been expected since the end of 2010. However the response of the international community has not been fast enough or big enough to avoid the crisis taking hold. Donors are often reluctant to make large funding commitments until they are sure of the scale of the crisis, which is only now really becoming apparent.

It is also important that governments and donor invest in long-term development in the region – in order to increase incomes, create sustainable livelihoods and improve access to health and education. This will help build resilience among poor communities and reduce vulnerability to drought – so that when the rains fail again, as they certainly will, people will be in a better situation to cope.

This means that donors and agencies should shift towards other strategies once the hunger gap has passed in October – to help people build back their assets and develop livelihoods. But very often, the response is drastically scaled-down once the emergency period is over, leaving people vulnerable to another drought.

Christopher Barrett, Professor of Applied Economics and Management, International Professor of Agriculture, Professor of Economics, Cornell University

1. There are really two different steps.  The first is prompt and appropriate response.  Worldwide, donors left nearly 40% on UN emergency appeals unfilled last year and much of what was filled came in very late relative to when the emergency-affected populations needed help.  The humanitarian assistance community has been preparing needs assessments and response analyses for several months.  This drought isn’t catching the world unawares.  It has been building for many months.  Donors need to step up immediately with the cash, food, medicines, etc. to help prevent this drought from turning into famine.

Second, the global development community has to get better about disaster risk reduction.  This year’s drought appears more severe than most.  But this is a recurring problem in this region.  While donors get generous with emergency assistance in the 11th hour, we need to start being more generous about pre-emptive investments in risk management for these regions.  It’s hard to do in Somalia because of the extreme insecurity of those specific areas.  But neighboring, more stable parts of Ethiopia and Kenya are likewise suffering terribly yet donors and government have invested little in improved water and rangeland management, nor in better infrastructure and financial services to facilitate livelihood diversification.  That disaster risk reduction and preparedness is a second, essential part of what needs to be done to avert even bigger crisis in the region.

2. Absolutely.  The questions revolve around the scale and pace of the humanitarian response and whether there will be substantial effort to avert the next crisis.  See my replies above.

James C. McCann, Professor of History, Associate Director for Development, African Studies Center, Boston University

I have just returned from Ethiopia, where I visited two research sites that I know quite well, one in the northwest and another in the southwest. I did not visit any location in the southeast or in the proximity of Somalia. I saw the UN press releases on Al-Jazeera and BBC, but saw no direct evidence of it since I was working in the highlands at some distance from the areas in question.

My research sites had received excellent rains, the crops were well advanced and there was no visible food shortages in the markets or on the farms themeselves. The visual evidence from the TV images of Somalia was that, as in the past, most of the drought refugees are the old, women, and children. Men have stayed behind and sent their dependants to receive aid from the camps. This is not a new phenomenon and I have seen no hard evidence from the UN sources that would substantiate that this is the “worst drought in 60 years.” The UN needs to ramp up its claims since it is experiencing donor fatigue. I do not doubt that there is drought stress, but in the past Somalis systematically used international aid camps to look after the women and the old and the children while men sustained their livelihoods as herders (or more comonly as fighters). It is almost impossible to verify what is going on since Somali livelihoods have long drawn on international aid to sustain their political struggles.

One difference now is that al-Shabaab now says it will allow international NGOs to come and feed people in its base areas. That might mean that they are indeed desperate or that they see direct infusions of food as part of a larger political strategy. All of this is a further indication of a tragedy that is as political as it is humanitarian. Let the international community sustain the women and children so that the young men can sustain the conflict. This is a version of what has taken place in the past two decades. I don’t see that the situation is dramatically different now. The presence of international aid actually sustains the conflict and the livelihoods of the young fighters.

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