Children shouldn’t have to starve to death to galvanize the international community into action. And yet that is what happened in the Horn of Africa last summer.
Sophisticated early warning systems forecast a drought and hunger crisis in Somalia, Kenya and Ethiopia as far back as the summer of 2010; but donors, governments, the United Nations and even relief agencies failed to respond until people began to die.
In the months before the famine, the world was understandably preoccupied with the global recession, the Arab Spring uprisings and other crises. However, the early warning system, which analyzes weather, agriculture, livestock, markets and nutrition, produced reliable information that should not have been ignored.
The wait-and-see approach resulted in the unnecessary deaths of 100,000 people – many of them Somali women and children. In all, more than 13 million people have been affected. Tens of millions of extra dollars had to be spent to bring in food and water.
“The malnutrition rates in Somalia were already above the emergency threshold in August, 2010, so the early warning system captured the reality. It just didn’t trigger the right reaction,” notes Robert Fox, the executive director of Oxfam Canada. This organization, along with Save the Children, just released a report calling on governments, donors and relief agencies to prevent a recurrence of the Horn of Africa disaster by changing the way they respond to food emergencies. Aid funding should be more flexible and agile. Development initiatives must be temporarily postponed if emergency relief is needed. The technical capacity should be in place to scale up aid operations.
The report is well-timed. In the Sahel belt of North Africa, another imminent food crisis is unfolding, due to drought and high food prices in Chad, Mali and Senegal. Malnutrition rates are approaching emergency thresholds and aid groups say there is a window of opportunity between now and March to assist vulnerable communities. The world has a chance to put the lessons from East Africa into practice. It would be a crime to fail again.