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The East African food crisis: Heed the warning

I imagine you would feel pretty outraged if you went to your GP complaining of chest pains and wheeziness, only to be ushered out the door and told to await cardiac arrest before doing anything about it.

You’d probably find this particularly disturbing if you or your family members had a history of cardiac vulnerability. And you would presumably see it as standard and sensible practice if, instead, the doctor prescribed you with appropriate medication and offered you a set of dietary and lifestyle recommendations to reduce the risk of a heart attack.

While in such circumstances preventative measures and prompt intervention are considered the norm, expectations for response to early warnings of food crises are lamentably lower.

The Horn of Africa is currently experiencing the most severe food crisis so far this century – 13 million people across Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia are affected, hundreds of thousands are at risk of starvation, and some estimates place the death toll at 50,000-100,000.

There were warning signs as early as August 2010 but almost across the board they were not significantly acted upon until well into 2011, despite East Africa’s longstanding propensity to drought and food insecurity.

So how was this allowed to happen?

This week Save the Children and Oxfam launched a joint report, A Dangerous Delay: the cost of late response to early warnings.

It examines the factors that resulted in a drought developing into a full-blown hunger and livelihoods disaster, which include: a failure among national governments to declare an emergency; and, on the part of the international community, a collective risk aversion and fear that intervention could undermine local systems.

It also proposes measures (in line with the Charter to End Extreme Hunger) to prevent the worst effects of such crises in the future.

The report calls for national governments, donors and aid agencies to accept the premise of uncertainty and unpredictability in the onset of emergencies and manage the risks rather than the crisis. Greater investment in early warning systems will enhance risk management but will be insufficient without improved action.

What does improved action look like?

It must be two-fold. On the one hand, it means addressing chronic vulnerability and building local and national resilience to deal with the challenges of uncertainty. But it also means more effective national and international emergency response mechanisms.

This dual focus must be used to break down the artificial divide between humanitarian and development programming.

It is long-term programmes that are often best placed to respond to forecasts of crisis but flexibility must be built into these so they can adapt, accommodate a humanitarian surge and respond to deteriorating food insecurity.

Mobilising decision-makers and civil society

Perhaps one of the most significant obstacles to early action is the slow mobilisation of decision-makers, as well as donor and national populations. Gaining traction among these constituencies is often extremely difficult until a crisis is in full flow.

Since governmental response to a crisis involves the investment of significant political capital, decision-makers are more likely to take early action if they have a stake in it, if conscious and mobilised populations hold them accountable, and if they are presented with a convincing economic case for preventing the escalation of food and livelihoods crises. Ultimately, committed and visionary moral leadership is what will make a difference here.

Changing aid culture

As aid agencies, we cannot hang about waiting for this to emerge. We should be seeking to set the agenda, shape policy and, I believe, fundamentally change aid culture. Popular mobilisation (and the fundraising efforts upon which aid programming so relies) is currently driven by appeals to empathy and charity.

‘Aid fatigue’ inevitably sets in and interest in supporting nameless starving children drops off, until confronted with images and footage of another raging disaster. We should instead seek to develop a new language of collective responsibility.

This is not beyond our imaginations. Indeed our expectations of response to chronic health problems are, despite its critics, a direct consequence of our acceptance of the National Health Service as the embodiment of our collective duty for the provision of healthcare for all.

Clearly, there are plenty of practical challenges in the mapping of a national system onto international emergency response architecture. But the building of a conscious internationalism and a sense of cosmopolitan responsibility is our starting point. Aid agencies must play a part in this.

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