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Somalia: East Africa Food Crisis: looking back

Source: Disasters Emergency Committee
Country: Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia

DEC 50th: Saleh Saeed, CEO of the DEC, looks back at the East Africa Crisis Appeal and the history of famine in Ethiopia.

It was the premonition of a disaster, a nightmare vision that foretold the suffering of millions: desiccated carcases of cows and goats littered the plain on the outskirts of Wajir, a small town in arid north eastern Kenya.

“For the people of that region, those animals were everything: their work, their income, their savings, their asset base. It was clear there was a problem,” said Andrew Wander of Save the Children, who visited East Africa in May 2011.

By then the rains had already failed and an exceptionally severe drought was forecast. The early warning systems had been signalling an impending food crisis in neighbouring Somalia since the previous November. But those in a position to act did little to halt the crisis spreading across the Horn of Africa. Even the aid agencies which were raising the alarm were slow to scale up their response.

“In an earthquake or flood the worst is over by the time you get there,” said Wander. “With this the worst wasn’t even close. It was happening in slow motion in front of your eyes.”

In late June 2011 Wander returned, this time to the Dadaab refugee camp near the border between Kenya and Somalia. Refugees were flowing out of Somalia, walking for weeks through a war zone, their clothing in rags and their feet cut to pieces, preyed upon by militia and bandits. Many starved to death.

“There was a sense of overwhelming numbers of people arriving and not being served by the system,” said Wander. “They were setting up outside the formal camp because there just wasn’t enough room, making shelters with bits of sticks.”

In total over 13 million people were affected across Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia and South Sudan. In Somalia, the epicentre of the crisis, the UN estimated that nearly 260,000 people died in the famine. Half of those were under five. I visited Mogadishu in August 2011, where I saw what those statistics mean on the ground: tiny children, barely able to eat or drink, battling measles, fever, diarrhoea and malnourishment. Many children were too weak to be vaccinated against the very diseases that were killing them. It remains the worst example of human suffering I’ve experienced in 20 years of humanitarian work.

The causes were complex. The DEC’s independent assessment spoke of five distinct crises in the region, each with its own history. Nevertheless there are some common threads, the main one being the drought, caused by the failure of two rainy seasons, which was the worst in 60 years in some parts of the region. This came on the back of several years of poor rains and food price inflation which had left millions of people very vulnerable. Crops failed, animals died and desperate people went on the move.

But these alone weren’t enough to cause a famine. Politics played a key role. Mark Malloch-Brown, a former UK minister for Africa, said: “It is no coincidence that famine has taken hold where governance remains weakest in the region.”

Somalia was not ruled by a central government but rather by militia groups. In northern Kenya the pastoralists are neglected and seen as an embarrassing relic of the past by the central government. The Ogaden region of Ethiopia is also politically marginalised.

After months of inadequate action the crisis became headline news in July 2011. On 5 July, two weeks before the UN officially declared a famine in parts of Somalia, the DEC launched the East Africa Crisis Appeal, which went on to raise £79m. The organisation’s member agencies began to rapidly scale up their work, providing food, water and medical care to 2.3m people, and moving on to long-term projects to help prevent a repeat of the crisis in future.

Some people said the 2011 disaster was itself a repeat – a re-run of the infamous famine which hit Ethiopia in 1984. There were striking similarities: the world had taken little attention of the unfolding crisis, and aid only began to flow after the BBC journalist Michael Buerk made a series of reports describing a “biblical famine”. The DEC ran an appeal and Bob Geldof’s BandAid and LiveAid followed.

But the “nothing changes in Africa” brigade missed much that made the 2011 famine very different. The drought itself was much worse in 2011, yet there were far fewer deaths than in 1984, when over a million people died. Although parts of Ethiopia suffered great hunger in 2011, the government’s relatively good early warning systems meant their response to the crisis was reasonably effective, despite some bureaucratic delays.

The political situation surrounding the famine was very different in 1984. The Ethiopian government of the time, supported by the Soviet Union, was fighting a long-running insurgency and ran a centralised, planned economic system, a combination which left millions of people without a secure source of food. They were already hungry when the drought hit.

The complexities of the 1984 famine forced aid agencies to learn and hone many strategies which are now commonplace, such as working on both sides of a civil war by running programmes remotely through local partner organisations. Recently they have faced accusations that humanitarian aid was fuelling the conflict rather than feeding the hungry, a charge the DEC’s former chief executive Brendan Gormley denies.

“We weren’t naively fuelling the war,” he said. “It was taking a controlled risk to reach the peasant countryside that we couldn’t reach from the government side. Some ex-rebels, who had fallen out with their former comrades, later claimed they siphoned some of the money to buy arms, but we never saw any evidence of that.”

Many aid agencies and journalists glossed over the political situation in 1984 for fear it would affect the humanitarian response. In 2011, journalists were forthright in reporting the effects of the conflict. Aid agencies, with concerns over staff safety and maintaining humanitarian access, had to be careful discussing political failures in host countries, and in a three minute TV appeal it was impossible to discuss the subtleties of the crisis. But they showed a much greater willingness to publicly engage in discussions about the political complexities affecting their work.

This matters because famines are man-made. They are predictable and so can be averted. This isn’t just good humanitarianism, it’s good economics too. In the food crisis in Niger in 2005, the cost of helping at an early stage was estimated at US$7 per person. But the big donors didn’t give the money and the crisis ended up costing US$23 per person.

Recent Oxfam and Save the Children research found that decision makers want to act on definite figures, not uncertain forecasts. That leads to a terrible Catch-22. It’s hard to get money to fight famine without showing extreme need, but if people are that desperate, the work is being done too late. We need to get beyond needing emotive television images to push us to action - respond when cows are dying, not children.

Saleh Saeed

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