The following article first appeared in Embassy, August 24, 2011
by Robert Fox
The scale and severity of the crisis in East Africa are testing the limits of the humanitarian emergency system.
At the same time, the crisis points the international community to the importance of acting decisively to address underlying vulnerabilities in a region where droughts are ever more frequent.
I’ve traveled to Dolo Ado in southern Ethiopia and Dadaab in northern Kenya to see firsthand the effect of the worst drought to hit East Africa in 60 years and to assess the response of the international community.
The situation remains dire as thousands of Somalis cross the border each day in search of food and peace—most of them women and children, many of them having walked weeks.
Making matters worse, the communities to which they have fled are themselves reeling from the impact of two successive years with only negligible rain.
The international response continues to fall far short. Barely 60 per cent of the United Nations funding target has been met and donors are slow in converting pledges into funds or food.
Agencies on the ground are making good progress in scaling up their response and many of the early obstacles are being overcome. While I was in Dadaab the Ifo II and Kambioos camps finally received their first families, offering the prospect that we can speed up the settlement of refugees into camps that assure proper services and protection.
But while we move to triage from staunching the hemorrhaging, the scale and severity of the crisis continues to outstrip the available resources and test the limits of the humanitarian system.
In Dadaab, for example, the World Food Program has increased its deliveries from 5,000 tonnes a week to 7,500 tonnes. But while it used to keep three months’ reserve of food on hand, it is now distributing supplies as quickly as they arrive, raising concern whether it can assure continuous supply.
Canada’s response has been generous with CIDA allocating $72 million and pledging to match the donations of Canadians. Unlike some donors who fund only the refugees, CIDA has also understood the importance of providing life-saving support to drought-stricken communities in Ethiopia and Kenya that have seen their livestock decimated and their people face hunger.
In a climate-changed world, we know we will see more drought in the coming years and we know they will be more severe, larger and longer. For that reason, the challenge before us is not just to respond to the current crisis but to address the underlying vulnerability.
In communities in East Africa where Oxfam has been working with local partners to build their resilience through proactive investments in small-scale irrigation, drought-resistant crops and community mobilizing, we see the drought’s toll has been greatly reduced. Social protection programs, innovative insurance schemes and cash-for-work have also staved off hunger for millions.
We need to significantly increase funding for these types of initiatives, helping communities protect and build up their assets, reduce disaster risk and adapt to climate change. We also need to be proactive in boosting support for sustainable small-scale farmers and livestock producers, recognizing the critical role of women in agricultural production.
The drought that has gripped East Africa is a natural disaster but famine and hunger are a political disaster—a result of poverty, gender inequality and marginalization made worse by years of conflict and policies that ignore the importance of small-scale agriculture and disaster risk reduction.
The victims of this current crisis are those who have contributed least to its creation. This is all the more reason for us to act decisively, not just to address the emergency but also its underlying causes.
Canada has an important role to play in ensuring that no one suffers hunger and that this latest famine in East Africa is its last.
Robert Fox is executive director of Oxfam Canada.