Why doesn't predicting African famines prevent them?

The Famine Early Warning Systems Network can tip off countries and aid groups about food insecurity in a region, but without the institutions to manage crisis, that does little good.

A version of this post originally appeared on the blog, A View From the Cave. The views expressed are the author's own.

Experts knew it was coming. In March of 2011 the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS Net) warned that low rains in the Horn of Africa would make parts of the region food insecure through June of that year.

“A poor season could result in a major crisis. Therefore, these areas require especially close monitoring over the coming months,” warned the report.

Despite the warnings of a potential crisis, little action was taken. When the rains did not come and the drought led to famine in parts of Somalia by July, it was too late for some people. Food and fuel prices spiked. An estimated 11.5 million people needed immediate humanitarian assistance, according to the United Nations, and tens of thousands died.

In just a span of 90 days, an estimated 29,000 Somali children died. 

“The greatest tragedy is that the world saw this disaster coming but did not prevent it. Across Ethiopia, Kenya, Djibouti, and Somalia this crisis has played out very differently, but common to all of them was a slow response to early warnings,” said former UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Jan Egeland last year.

The England-based policy think tank Chatham House took a closer look at how countries respond to early warnings of famine and found that the case of the Horn of Africa is generally the rule, rather than the exception.

“All too often the link between early warning and early action fails and the opportunity to mitigate a gathering crisis is lost,” writes lead author Rob Bailey.

“This disconnect was starkly apparent in Somalia during 2010/11, when increasingly urgent early warnings accumulated for 11 months before famine was finally declared in July. Only after that did the humanitarian system mobilize.”

Although the international community failed to heed the warnings of FEWS Net, the fact that the early warning systems worked was a good thing. Aid agencies knew that a food crisis was possible because of the widespread tracking of rainfall, food prices, and crop yields through the system.

The Chatham House report points out that food crises are slow-developing events that can be anticipated, as seen in the case of the Horn of Africa, several months in advance. Despite having proper warning systems and dealing with problems that develop over time, it does not mean that action takes place quickly.

“We have learned some lessons from the Horn of Africa. While we can’t prevent drought, we can prevent famine,” says UN World Food Programme Executive Director Josette Sheeran.

The Horn of Africa crisis and a similar crisis in the Sahel region of Africa illustrate the fact that responding to droughts is becoming more expensive. Consolidated and flash appeals from the UN for the two regions grew from $130 million in 2002 to over $2 billion by 2012. The financial needs increased as did the gap between the amount required and the funds raised. The same rising trend is seen in donor contributions to the World Food Programme as a whole.

Opportunities to exist to improve early warning systems, including better coordination, crowd-sourcing information, and differentiating between likelihood crises and humanitarian interventions. A comparison of the early warning systems capacity of countries shows that there are generally strong systems in countries such as Somalia, Kenya, and Niger and weak systems in Chad, South Sudan, and Mauritania. The larger challenges exist when it comes to how countries choose to respond when provided information by the early warning systems.

Early response to a food crisis requires a bureaucracy capable of responding within the context of national politics that will undertake famine prevention measures. Ethiopia is given as an example in the report of a country with the capability to respond in terms of assessments and response capacity, but stumbles over itself due to political holdups. It is in some part due to incentives to downplay the risk of famine.

“In the case of Ethiopia, this incentive is magnified by a national development narrative underpinned by double-digit economic growth and rapidly increasing agricultural productivity,” says the report.

When warnings were raised regarding a potential food crisis in the Sahel shortly after the Horn of Africa crisis, countries and the international community sprung into action.

“In the case of the Sahel last year, there was very clearly a big sense of shame about what had happened in the Horn of Africa and particularly Somalia, and people were openly talking about the need to show that we’ve learned lessons,” Mr. Bailey explained to AlertNet.

The response helped to avert a famine, but it is not necessarily a matter of lessons learned, explained Bailey. He said that the underlying institutions did not change. The difference was the fact that the motivation to mitigate political risk tipped in the favor of early action.

Ensuring that such disasters do not keep occurring will involve greater accountability measures for individual countries and changed incentives for donors to undertake preventative measures. The challenge that donor countries face is a fear that people will accuse them of wasting money.

Media attention can mobilize a response, says the report, but it takes place at the point of crisis.

“The media cannot be relied on to help trigger an early response because the so-called "CNN effect" depends on images of suffering not available before an emergency.”

Donors must deploy flexible and prevention-oriented funding in order to ensure that future food crises and famines do not take place. Concerns that the rebel group Al-Shabaab would take aid money and disbursements slowed down the US response to famine in Somalia. The problem created a greater burden on agencies who had to go through reporting hoops.

Solutions will require greater collaboration and a shared responsibility among donor countries, says the report. It recommends improving coordination activities as well as investments in what it calls "resilience labs," where new approaches to prevention can be tested, shared and improved. The donors can then turn back to their citizens to support the case that investments in prevention are worthwhile.

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