Thousands of needless deaths occurred and millions of extra dollars were spent because the international community failed to take decisive action on early warnings of a hunger crisis in East Africa, according to a new report by the international aid agencies Oxfam and Save the Children.
“This report is a timely reminder given that it comes ahead of global meetings at Davos and the African Union” said Nic Moyer, Executive Director of the Humanitarian Coalition. “The agencies that make up the Humanitarian Coalition are already raising the alarm about a looming food crisis that now threatens millions of people in West Africa. International donors must learn from past experience. Action must be taken before hunger turns into famine.”
The report, A Dangerous Delay, says a culture of risk aversion caused a six month delay in the large-scale aid effort because humanitarian agencies and national governments were too slow to scale up their response to the crisis, and many government donors wanted proof of a humanitarian catastrophe before acting to prevent one.
Sophisticated early warning systems first forecast a likely emergency as early as August 2010 but the full-scale response was not launched until July 2011 when malnutrition rates in parts of the region had gone far beyond the emergency threshold and there was high profile media coverage of the crisis.
Save the Children and Oxfam say more funding for food emergencies should be sought and released as soon as the crisis signs are clear, rather than supporting large-scale emergency work only when hunger levels have reached tipping-point. By that time lives have already been lost and the cost of the response is much greater. The agencies call on governments to overhaul their response to food crises, as laid out in the Charter to End Extreme Hunger, a document that has already received backing from key international figures.
“Early action saves lives,” said Robert Fox, Executive Director of Oxfam Canada. “It’s irresponsible for governments to wait for the public to push them to act when they know the need and the risks months before the crisis makes headlines. Droughts happen when the rains fail. Hunger happens when governments fail – when they don’t give enough support to small farmers and don’t move fast enough to support families at risk.”
"That a serious food crisis was developing was known months before TV crews were on the ground in the refugee camps,” said Save the Children’s CEO Patricia Erb. “Children don’t have to face acute malnutrition because we know the steps that must be taken to avert this kind of disaster. First we need to improve early warning systems and second we need to empower the UN to release funds before crises turn into humanitarian catastrophes.”
Although it is impossible to calculate exactly how many people died as a result of drought, the UK government estimates that as many as 100,000 lives were lost between April and August 2011, more than half of them children under the age of five. Today, Somalia remains the most acute food crisis in the world, with hundreds of thousands of people at risk.
Some early action did take place. But overall, the scale of crisis outstripped these efforts and late intervention cost more. For example, trucking five litres of water per day to 80,000 people for five months in Ethiopia costs more than $3 million, compared to $900,000 to prepare water sources in the same area before a drought occurs. Such a proactive approach would mean more lives saved and less money spent. It is an approach that should be embraced at a time when accountability, aid effectiveness and proven outcomes are the focus of governments around the world.