Have we got the response to the East Africa food crisis right?

The Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) has launched a Facebook campaign encouraging people to give up something worth £5 and make that a donation to the East Africa Crisis Appeal. I and lots of my friends, have given up things, from muffins to malbec. To be honest, the prospect of millions of people facing huge hardship and starvation should be enough to put all of us off of our muffins. It is right that we do all that we can to stop this, and that aid agencies work to raise awareness and to respond however they can  – and I’m proud that Tearfund supporters have been responding to our appeal  which will allow our local partners in Kenya and Ethiopia to scale up their work at this time.

However, these appeals have received criticism from some quarters – such as from Jonathan Clayton in The Times – who claims that NGOs are crying wolf .  Whilst I strongly disagree with his accusation that this isn’t a “real emergency”, there is some truth in his argument that, in many ways, the appeal alone cannot solve this crisis.  I absolutely don’t think we should stand by and do nothing.  But perhaps we can do even more to stress the actions that can be taken in the medium to long term to try to prevent a crisis like this happening again in the future.

Tearfund has, for a long time, been calling for greater investment in Disaster Risk Reduction and in building the resilience of communities to help them to weather these kinds of storms.  Our report Investing In Communities, published at the end of last year, showed that, in Malawi, every £1 invested in food security and resilience programmes reaped £24 in net benefits for the local community.  Many of our local partners are involved in this vital work – mobilising communities and building their resilience – day in, day out. It is clear to them that acting to prevent a humanitarian crisis is much cheaper – and much better for communities – than responding to one.

This point is one that DFID highlighted in their recent announcement on the Humanitarian and Emergency Response Review. However, it’s not yet clear how to mobilise enough of this kind of up-front investment.  The fact remains that people – and donors – are motivated to respond when the situation is dire.  Emergency appeals are always easier to raise money for than great, long term, low profile development work – a frustrating truth, that we need to work together to overcome.

It is also clear that building community resilience alone does not go far enough.  While we can’t attribute any single crisis to climate change specifically, we know that climate change is making weather patterns less predictable, which is hitting the poorest hardest through crises such as these.  And we know that it is ongoing levels of poverty that leave these countries particularly vulnerable to drought.

Starvation is never a result of an overall lack of food in the world – it’s just that it is unevenly distributed and those with least resources are least able to afford it. Which is why it is vital that we continue to speak out and advocate for a fair and binding global deal on climate change; for rich countries to stump up the cash that they have promised for both overseas aid (including the $22 billion promised by the G8 in 2009 specifically for food security) and for climate change adaptation, which will allow the kind of long term investment that is needed; and for the root causes of this massive, and sickening global inequality to be addressed.

So, if we’re asking our friends to give up something in order to donate to the DEC, maybe we should ask them to sign a postcard or write a letter to their MP about some of these underlying causes of the food crisis too.  Unless we help people to make these links, there is a real danger that the aid fatigue expressed in The Times will continue to spread.

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