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One year on from the Horn of Africa food crisis, much progress and many lessons

One year on from the Horn of Africa food crisis, much progress and many lessons

July 5, 2012

It is a year now since the world woke up to what has been called the worst food crisis in the 21st century. The footage of Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya was truly awful, and the conditions people were living in when they arrived at Dollo Ado camp in Ethiopia were quite shocking. The UN categorized parts of Somalia as being in famine – a term used so rarely now that we had started to think it no longer happens. 

While the situation has improved, Oxfam will continue to work with communities in Somalia, Ethiopia, and Kenya, to help reduce chronic vulnerability to drought and food insecurity. From a historical perspective, the world has undoubtedly moved on in our ability to save lives. The numbers of disasters are on the increase. So too is the number of people exposed to them. But the numbers that actually die has gone down.

Longer-term aid responses have contributed to this, and Ethiopia and Kenya have both developed safety-net programs designed to deliver long term help to some of the poorest people in their societies. Only in Somalia has the situation not improved at all, but this is directly attributable to two decades of conflict and political turmoil, poor international policies that have exacerbated the crisis, and curtailed access for the humanitarian community. 

However, while fewer people are dying, the numbers of people living in poverty who risk losing their livelihoods in such crises has increased in vulnerable areas such as the Horn of Africa, and much more does need to be done by governments and the international community to address this.

Looking back on 2011, and more pertinently to 2010, we admit that we – as the entire international community – were slow to scale up our work. But once the crisis hit the headlines and the funds started to come in, I am pleased with the speed and dedication that Oxfam staff put in to what became a massive response in a highly complex, fluid, and often very insecure environment. 

Particularly noteworthy were the following: the commitment of Oxfam’s local partners in all three countries to take on more work; the professionalism of our existing teams of mainly national staff whose knowledge of contexts and communities gave invaluable insights; and the skills and global expertise of our specialist advisers who traveled to the region at short notice. Oxfam was well placed to use its existing programs and partnerships as a platform to extend its coverage, without which its response would have been weaker.

I am also grateful to Oxfam’s supporters. We are in difficult economic times, yet the generosity of individuals, companies, and institutions has been inspiring. This was the largest Africa appeal that Oxfam has ever launched, and one of its most successful in recent years. Without these funds, we simply could not have achieved what we did to save lives, prevent destitution, and sustain livelihoods. This is a long-term crisis for many communities in the Horn of Africa and Oxfam’s work is by no means over, but the commitments of donors meant that we could make that necessary gear-change when it mattered most. So thank you.

But doing good emergency work is not enough. Looking to the future, the humanitarian community should use the lessons learned during this crisis to create real momentum among governments, donors, and partners to do things differently. We need to make sustained investments in medium- and longer-term interventions if we are to break the cycle of food insecurity. We need to move away from standalone, quick-in-and-out emergency responses that keep people alive but do little to protect or improve livelihoods. 

Fortunately, it seems governments and donors are listening. Furthermore, Oxfam and the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) are in a unique position to build on the excellent relationships around the IASC Horn of Africa Plan of Action. The plan enhances support to regional and country-led processes that aim to address chronic hunger and malnutrition, build the resilience of vulnerable livelihoods, and ensure the early, appropriate, and effective scale up of assistance in times of acute crisis. 

We will utilize all of our strengths: our ability to influence and advocate at a high level with governments and regional bodies such as the African Union, and our work with communities, partners, private sector and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), to develop a broad range of interventions that will help shape a better future for vulnerable people.

Oxfam is totally committed to working together with others – in East Africa, West Africa, and other regions of the world – to end extreme hunger.

– Jeremy Hobbs, Executive Director, Oxfam International




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