Aid groups: With new Africa drought looming, donors must speed response

Aid groups warned that a drought was coming to the Horn of Africa in 2011, and say now that a late response by donor nations unnecessarily cost thousands of lives. 

Farah Abdi Warsameh/AP/File
Somalis from southern Somalia demonstrate against the lack of food and water at Maka Al Mukarama road in Mogadishu, Somali, September 2011 carrying placards which read 'We need food and water.' Aid groups gave the world plenty of time to prepare, but a late response by the world’s donor nations cost thousands of lives during last year’s drought in the Horn of Africa region.

Scientists and aid organizations gave the world plenty of time to prepare, but a late response by the world’s donor nations cost 50,000 to 100,000 lives during last year’s drought in the Horn of Africa region.

That is the message of a joint report by Oxfam International, Save the Children and other charities, released today, during the global meetings at Davos, Switzerland, and at the African Union in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Now, with a new drought looming in the West African nations of Mauritania, Niger, Mali, and Chad, the joint report, “The Dangerous Delay,” is calling for an overhaul of the world’s aid delivery system to avoid more preventable deaths from starvation.

“The humanitarian community needs to come together and raise its voice louder so governments and donors know the gravity of crises such as the one in the Horn of Africa,” said Carolyn Miles, President and CEO of Save the Children in a statement. “By the time the world sees starving children on TV, it’s too late. Tens of thousands of deaths could have been prevented had aid groups and governments received funding earlier to scale up programs.” 

Aid groups estimate that 50,000 to 100,000 people died of hunger between April and August 2011, more than half of them children. Even today, the UN warns that as many as 750,000 Somalis could die in the ongoing food crisis in Somalia.

What makes the deaths in the Horn of Africa so galling for many activists is the fact that the world had advance warning. Unlike the famine in the Horn of Africa in 1984, which caused an estimated 1 million deaths in Ethiopia alone, aid organizations had received alerts from a massive computerized system called the Famine Early Warning System, which is comprised of ground sensors, satellite imagery, and field observations. FEWS-Net and other systems alerted aid groups as early as August 2010 that drought conditions were worsening, but slow funding from international donors meant that aid groups could not mount a full-scale response until July 2011, when the drought was in full force.

A famine warning and a global economic crisis

It’s logical to point fingers at the governments of rich nations such as Britain, France, the United States, and Germany for the slow donor response, because they are the nations who tend to give the most aid in times of emergency. As of 2002, the US donated 64 percent of the world's food aid, followed by Europe with 13.8 percent, Japan with 3.2 percent, and China with 1.7 percent. When these nations respond slowly, that hampers the ability of aid groups like Oxfam and Save the Children to send out extra personnel or emergency relief to a disaster zone.

But the truth is that 2011 is the year that the global economic crisis came to a head. The US Congress contemplated massive spending cuts to curb the US’s historic $14.7 trillion debt. The European Union appeared, at times, close to breaking up, as debt-strapped nations Greece, Italy, and Portugal veered toward insolvency.

Ordinary voters in the US told pollsters during this time period they thought that the US should scale back foreign aid spending.  In a November 2010 poll conducted by and Knowledge Networks, Americans were asked what percentage of the US federal budget was spent on foreign aid, and what amount was “appropriate.” The most common answers were 25 percent and 10 percent, respectively. The US actually spends only 1 percent of its federal budget on foreign aid.

Oxfam's director emphasized the dangers of delayed responses.

“We all bear responsibility for this dangerous delay that cost lives in East Africa and need to learn the lessons of the late response,” said Oxfam’s Chief Executive, Barbara Stocking in a joint statement. “It’s shocking that the poorest people are still bearing the brunt of a failure to respond swiftly and decisively. We know that acting early saves lives but collective risk aversion meant aid agencies were reluctant to spend money until they were certain there was a crisis.”

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