Paying the price of delayed action – the East Africa food crisis

Last week a sixth region was officially declared to be a famine zone in Somalia and it’s likely to spread.  This means that 750,000 people are at risk of death in the next four months if there is no adequate response.  And $920m is still needed from donor governments for humanitarian aid for the East Africa food crisis.  Governments and donors also met at the fourth high level conference on the food crisis in East Africain less than 2 months. 

What is frustrating is that these meetings come too late to save many lives.  We saw this food crisis coming almost a year ago and it could have been prevented, as I pointed out below in my blog, which featured on the Guardian website on 22 August. 

When donors delay in the face of crisis, there is a heavy price to be paid

This time last year, I was lobbying donor governments to provide humanitarian aid to 10 million people affected by a food crisis in the Sahelregion of west Africa. Shockingly, here I am again, seeing the same story unfold in the Horn of Africa, where there has been another late response.

Aid agencies sounded the alarm in April and the escalating warning signals were plain to see. A Tearfund partner in Kenya, on the border of Somalia, told of malnourished children, mothers in poor health, road sides littered with carcasses of dead livestock, and refugee camps bursting at the seams as hundreds of Somalis arrived each day.

This delay has already cost the lives of 29,000 children under five and many more could have been saved by investing earlier. In November last year, it would have cost $500m to prevent the situation from deteriorating into a drought emergency in April and into a severe food crisis by July. Sadly, the UN appeal was largely ignored by donor governments and now, nine months later, the Horn of Africa faces a famine.

The cost has soared to $2.5bn, just to keep malnourished children alive, and the number of people requiring humanitarian aid has doubled. A similar death toll to that witnessed during the 1980s famine in Ethiopia is alarmingly close.

The impact of drought on livestock near the Kenya/Somalia border

It’s simply unacceptable that donors respond at the 11th hour when children are starving to death. We need to plan for cyclical droughts, roughly every two to three years, as East Africa has had six food crises in the past 30 years. Simple measures, like keeping herders’ precious livestock alive, could have prevented this disaster. Instead, it will take at least three years to rebuild their livelihoods.

In response to media and public pressure, donors demonstrate the ability to provide huge amounts of funding – over $1bn was pledged in two to three weeks. But the World Bank’s $500m, pledged in July, would have covered last November’s original appeal in its entirety.

We can’t blame drought alone for pushing people over the edge and the current food crisis is only the tip of the iceberg, because there is a silent hunger crisis all over the world. The entire aid system needs an overhaul. The G20 and the UN Committee on World Food Security need to:

• Invest more in smallholder farmers and pastoralists long-term.

• Prepare for food crises in advance by building livelihood resilience strategies into development plans that will help lessen the impact of future droughts, expensive food and conflict.

• Make decisions quickly based on early warning signals, agreed triggers and contingency plans.

• Tackle underlying factors that keep people chronically poor, like herders who can’t access grazing land or basic services.

Tearfund has seen the benefits of investing in poor communities for the past 20 years in Ethiopia. For example, local churches have set up self-help groups mostly consisting of women. They no longer rely on food aid and they can save anything from £50 upwards.

“I am engaged in spice trading,” said Tsgesh Shalamu from Awassa. “When we started, people laughed at us. ‘What difference does saving 1 birr (3p) a week make?’ they said. But now we support each other and others want to be part of a self-help group. My husband passed away and I started making injera [bread] with the loan I got and now I can support my children.”

Aylkesh is from the same area. She said: “The self-help group started in August 2005 with 20 members. Now we save up to 3.5 birr (12p) per week and have 15,000 birr (£539) of savings. I fatten cattle and I get milk which I sell and we drink. My children are now healthy because of this milk and I can now afford to send my children to school. I have three boys and three girls, all are going to school up to eighth grade.”

Now we need to turn our attention toNiger, which could be next to face a severe food crisis. Tearfund’s local partner in Niger is warning that if they don’t get enough rain this week, herders could experience a food crisis worse than 2005 and 2010.

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