Freelance journalist on international development and social issues
Tens of thousands of people have already died during a famine in Somalia and 3.2 million are on the brink of starvation, according to the United Nations. In total around 12.4 million people across the Horn of Africa are in need of urgent humanitarian aid. The Overseas Development Institute (ODI) investigated why the crisis has turned into a full-scale famine despite early warnings. The questions they asked are: Why did the international community not react earlier? How effective is the humanitarian response?
The conclusions they draw are very interesting and highlight a lack of preparedness on the part of the international community for preventing famine. They point out the age old adage that prevention is better than cure – in this case preventing a famine rather than dealing with an unfolding one – and they make the case that emergency responses should have long-term protective measures built in to ensure that future crises are averted.
The ODI argue that the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET) warned of a food crises in the Horn of Africa in November last year, but the international community only reacted once the situation deteriorated and famine had been declared in July. Why didn’t early warnings translate into early action? Some experts say the humanitarian system responds too late to wrong signals and that the response to the worsening situation was a reaction when it should have been preventive.
The crisis could have been averted if aid had arrived earlier in a different form. Instead of sending food aid when livestock was already dying and children were starving, farmers should have been helped to keep their livestock alive and healthy (e.g. by making feed available or by clearing animals from parasites). It has been shown that it is cheaper to keep livestock alive than replacing them. Markets should be supported to help families buy their food instead of giving families food aid, and the cost of purchasing food can be reduced by subsidizing grain rather than sending in grain when people are already starving . To help prevent families from having to sell off their animals, families can be assisted by providing an alternative income, e.g. through cash for work programmes.
The ODI concludes that early warning systems are systematically over-emphasizing indicators such as food access and production. They ignore other essential non-food needs including medicines, veterinary drugs, seeds and, very importantly, access to water. “Food insecurity is a symptom of many different problems, including lack of access to water for drinking, hygiene and for generating income”, argues ODI researcher Roger Calow.
Access to water allows people to maintain production and income, buy or access food and to protect key assets. Clean, portable water helps prevent the spread of infectious diseases such as measles and diarrhoea – one of the primary causes of death during droughts and famines. As a consequence, warning systems need to improve their signals and include indicators on the availability of water. An emergency humanitarian response should include long-term projects to ensure access to water for everyone. That means that instead of bringing water into drought affected countries once the crises has unfolded, it would be better to act early and repair existing water systems.
Calow claims that in sub-Saharan Africa, roughly 40% of hand pumps drawing water from groundwater aquifers – natural stores that act as buffers against rainfall variability – simply don’t work. In contrast to the wealth of information now available on food and livelihood systems, few countries know about the quantity, quality, distribution and reliability of their water resources, about how they are being used or which water sources are functional. This has to change, demands the ODI researcher.
The emergency aid budget consists of billions of dollars. There is enough money to invest it sensibly, to act before food insecurity turns into famine. Unfortunately, there is a tendency to focus on the short-term, says ODI researcher Sami Elhawary. Humanitarian organizations mostly provide food once the situation has become severe, but a longer term approach needs to be taken when dealing with issues of food security. A greater emphasis needs to be placed on supporting people’s livelihoods so they can avoid the onset of drought in the first place and deal with it much more effectively when it does hit.
So how effective is the humanitarian response to the famine in Somalia? There are tens of thousands of aid agencies in the Horn of Africa at the moment. However, the conflict in Somalia and the Odagen region of Ethiopia hinders aid from reaching the worst affected areas as militant groups deny access to these regions. Instead of joining forces for a bigger cause, organizations compete with each other for shares of the donor budget. In Somalia, for example, the World Food Programme (WFP) is trying to get funds to feed people but are not getting access to where people are. At the same time, the Red Cross, which is able to reach these people, has to compete with the WFP for the same funds. This is a real problem, claims Linda Polman. Organizations that are not getting access should support and donate their funding to those agencies that are getting in. Budgets and strategies should be combined to work together on this international goal of alleviating the suffering of the people in the Horn of Africa.