The Horn of Africa – why did help arrive so late?

Last year countries in the Horn of Africa were hit by a major drought. Approximately 13 million people have been affected by the impacts of the drought, conflict, high food prices and chronic poverty. Peoples’ lives in Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia and Djibouti have been turned upside down and many thousands are struggling to recover, pushed into desperate poverty which it will take decades to recover from. No one knows exactly how many people died but an estimate by the UK’s Department for International Development estimated the figure could be as high as 100,000 people.

One tragic thing about this ongoing crisis is that there were warnings that it was coming long before it hit emergency levels. But the international system only kicked in once people started really suffering rather than addressing the issue ahead of time.

Taking the right actions at the right time saves lives. If international agencies, donors, the UN and national governments had supported people before the crisis hit to protect their income, by supporting markets, treating livestock and growing more healthy crops, we would have reduced malnutrition. Once there were clear signs of an impending emergency, we should all have provided more cash and food to the most vulnerable, boosted nutrition work, doubled efforts to get clean water and health services to people – these activities together would have reduced the number of deaths. Many of these activities were done but not at the levels needed.

Some of the affected areas are very isolated:  you have to fly for a day, drive a four-by-four for a day and then when you hit the end of the road, hire a donkey and trek further for another day. Many people affected by this drought have nothing like the basic levels of services many other people take for granted. It is frustrating to think that if everyone had acted earlier and invested better in these areas many thousands of people would not have died.

Late response to early warnings

A new report from Oxfam and Save the Children “A Dangerous Delay: The cost of late response to early warnings in the 2011 drought in the Horn of Africa” explains what happened and has come up with some actions that donors, the UN, international aid agencies and governments of affected countries need to take to ensure this type of emergency doesn’t happen again. The report recommends amongst other things:

  • The international community as a whole needs to overcome its aversion to risk and act earlier. It’s much more effective to manage a risk rather than a crisis. The insurance industry is well used to this –early investment to prevent dangerous crises makes much more sense than dealing with emergencies.
  • National governments bear ultimate responsibility for making sure their people are able to eat and are able to cope with droughts – this means more investment in small-scale food producers (pastoralists as well as farmers) and the remote marginalised regions that least developed.
  • Donors need to make sure that more and flexible funding is available for an early response, before it makes the news headlines.
  • Aid agencies need to be more willing to risk investing staff and money in responding early, and better integrate humanitarian and long-term work.
  • Everyone involved in the system from governments to agencies should support the Charter to End Extreme Hunger – a commitment to tackling the root causes of food crises such as conflict, lack of basic services, high food prices and low investment in small food producers

Emergency vs development

One big problem is the lack of integration between long term development work and short term emergency humanitarian work. I have always been surprised at the divides that exist between these two strands of work. To me it make most sense to see development and humanitarian work as part of a continuum and recognize that without the right sort of long term investment we will always end up picking up the pieces when an emergency grips.

There have been some attempts to bridge the divide between the two strands of work. For example, Oxfam has worked in Turkana, Kenya for decades, and undertook a strategic shift in programming in 2007 to combine both humanitarian and development work. This means combining social security with promotion of pastoralist rights and a flexible cash project, which responds to changes in the market.

All of this cannot be done without the international aid community working together– donors, governments and agencies need to learn these lessons and make significant changes in the way we all prepare for chronic drought.

Ongoing conflict and lack of access in southern and central Somalia would have made early action difficult, but not impossible.  Save the Children, for example, has reached more than 280,000 people and Oxfam has reached 1.5 million people in Somalia.

Oxfam's response

Oxfam itself made this the number one organizational priority in June 2011. So far our response has reached about 2.8 million people in Somalia, Kenya and Ethiopia affected by the crisis.

A variety of aid has been provided by Oxfam, including clean water (through repairing boreholes, pumps, local water sources and when necessary trucking in water); sanitation services (building and maintaining latrines); public health (campaigns to prevent the spread of malaria, cholera, diarrhea and other potentially fatal diseases); therapeutic feeding for malnourished children (through centres in Mogadishu); providing cash and livelihoods support (through a variety of cash grants, regular social safety net payments, cash for work); and long term interventions.

Oxfam’s global public appeals (including the amounts we received from coalition appeals such as DEC in the UK) have raised about $32 million. This money has had a huge impact and we are very grateful for such a generous reaction. No one is perfect in how we dealt with this situation, but what we do know is that now is the time for everyone to learn the lessons and make sure that we continue to deal with the ongoing crisis and prepare much better for the next time a serious drought hits vulnerable people like those affected in the Horn of Africa.

Read more

Joint report by Oxfam and Save the Children: A Dangerous Delay

Blog: A Charter to End Extreme Hunger: the time is now

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