Aid Agencies Saw Drought Coming in East Africa, So Why Couldn't They Help Prevent Famine?

Kenya is not a lush country. Rains falls steadily and often heavily in Mombasa, Nairobi and Kisumu, the three main cities and the best known to tourists. But 80% of the country is made up of semi-arid or arid land. In these parts of Kenya, life is hard.

Few places are less hospitable than Dadaab, a once tiny town in the far north-east. The sun is fierce, and swirling winds whip up the fine sand underfoot. The vegetation consists mainly of thorn trees. The town began to grow in the early 90s when Somalia descended into chaos and refugees starting pouring across the border, about 50 miles to the north. A refugee settlement designed for 90,000 people soon held more than 100,000, then 200,000, then 300,000. By late last year, Dadaab was close to overtaking Kisumu as Kenya's third largest "city". Then the steady stream of refugees crossing the border became a river, and then a flood. By early July this year, more than 1,500 Somalis were arriving at Dadaab's three camps daily, swelling the population towards 400,000.

In previous years, people were fleeing conflict. Now the main driver is hunger. A savage drought gripped large swaths of the Horn of Africa this year, as it has virtually every other year for the past decade. The drylands of Ethiopia and Kenya sit in the heart of the drought zone, along with southern Somalia. But only in Somalia were huge numbers of people on the move. And unlike in neighbouring countries, where nomads were the hardest hit, many of those fleeing Somalia were farmers from the grain basket region, who had enjoyed a bumper harvest last year and for whom Dadaab's desert-like scenery would have been totally alien.

The refugees who reached Dadaab were in a desperate way, but better than those they left behind.

"People were dying there," Hawa Ore, a young mother who had just arrived in Dadaab after a 20-day trek, told me. That same day, 20 July, the UN announced that tens of thousands of people in Somalia had already died from hunger-related causes. Famine conditions now existed in two regions of the country, and it was likely they would soon spread to the entire south of Somalia, it said. The declaration caused alarm and anger.

"How can we have people dying like flies of hunger in 2011?" said Luca Alinovi, an economist who lived in Somalia in the late 80s and now runs the Somalia country office of the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation, based in Nairobi. "It is so unacceptable. Famine is a middle ages issue."

That may be true, but famine has long stalked the Horn of Africa. The most well known crisis occurred in Ethiopia in 1984-85, when hundreds of thousands of lives were lost because of hunger. Then, as now, the country was hit by severe drought, but what pushed people over the edge were the government's disastrous agricultural policies and civil war. At the same time many thousands died in neighbouring Sudan, which was also under a dictatorship that refused to acknowledge the scale of the food crisis. As it does this time, the famous theory of Indian economist Amartya Sen held true: famines do not occur in functioning democracies.

The international response to the Ethiopian famine was extraordinary, particularly in the UK, and the Live Aid fundraising efforts generated tens of millions of pounds that helped to save countless lives. The scale of the disaster also led to efforts to ensure it never recurred. Among the most important of these was a famine early warning system created by the US to help anticipate food crises, allowing governments and policymakers to respond.

Just a few years later, however, tens of thousands of people were dying from hunger in Somalia. Once again, drought played a role, but the greatest factor was civil war. Mohamed Siad Barre had been overthrown in 1991, and rebel groups were fighting for power. The agriculture system was destroyed during the fighting and vast amounts of relief food stolen. Meanwhile, across the border in Kenya, where Daniel Arap Moi's government was stable but authoritarian, corrupt and negligent, people were also dying. One of the worst affected areas was Wajir, where Mohamed Elmi, a young health ministry official was based.

"That time still gives me nightmares," Elmi told me during a break last month in parliamentary proceedings in Nairobi, where he is now a government minister. "In one village alone, 15 children were dying a day. The concept of aid did not really exist in those areas at the time. Large numbers of people died, but the government would not allow us to report it."

Soon after, Elmi joined Oxfam, working in its emergencies team. In the following years, the response to drought from both his government and aid agencies improved. The early warning system made a big difference, as did the more streamlined system of dispensing food aid. Governance also got better, especially after the departure of Moi in 2002.

Ethiopia had also seen major improvements since the 80s. Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, who took power in 1991, may have his own ideas about democracy, but his government has put in place policies and structures to ensure famine did not recur. In Somalia, none of the various governments that were formed was able to stamp its authority on the country. But a few years into the 21st century, agricultural productivity per hectare across the Horn was increasing, as were the capabilities of the humanitarian organisations tasked with responding to food emergencies.

"Compared with 20 years before, there was a much better science available and a better understanding of the crises," said Randolph Kent, director of the Humanitarian Futures Programme at Kings College London, who has worked extensively in the Horn of Africa. "But at the same time the frequency and intensity of the drivers of the emergencies was increasing."

Indeed, the severe droughts that used to hit the Horn of Africa every decade or so are now far more common, and since 2000 they have struck virtually every other year, greatly affecting food security and forcing international aid agencies to launch a seemingly endless cycle of emergency appeals. There is no denying that the rainfall patterns are changing. In Kenya, for example, the area of the country that receives between 500mm and 600mm of rain a year, the amount considered sufficient for sustainable production, is shrinking.

"We can't say for sure that this is global warming, or part of a historical cycle, but there is definitely a change occurring," says Daniele de Bernardi, coordinator of the UN's food security and nutrition working group in Nairobi.

The areas most vulnerable are the marginal ones, where people are extremely reliant on the little rain that does fall. In Kenya, this means the arid north, a place where nomads have existed with their cattle for centuries. In recent decades, environmental degradation and high population growth have increased competition for scarce resources. At the same time, the Kenyan government has neglected the pastoralist regions when it comes to development, as has Ethiopia in areas such as the Ogaden, where there is an insurgency. In Kenya's north, school enrolment rates and education levels remain scandalously low, and the livestock industry, which could be of much greater value to the economy than it already is, is given little support.

"In most governments in the region power is with the agrarian people and there is still this 'These guys kill each other and look funny' attitude towards pastoralists," says Elmi, who in 2007 left Oxfam to enter politics, and is now minister for the development of northern Kenya and other arid lands. "So you have support for sectors such as coffee and pyrethrum and sisal. But for livestock there is nothing."

This leaves the people in the drylands especially vulnerable when the rains fail and food prices rise – as they have done dramatically over the past 12 months, for a variety of reasons, including the high cost of fuel, global commodity price hikes and the actions of unscrupulous local traders. The result is that 3.5 million Kenyans need food aid.

Elmi accepts that the government reacted to the crisis too late. But that is a charge that has been levelled against others too. The famine early warning systems network, which monitors many factors including climate and food prices in local markets, is able to warn of problems long before they occur. Indeed, warnings about the impending food crisis were first sent to governments and aid agencies in October last year. But little was done until the crisis blew up after it became clear that the April rains had failed, highlighting a major flaw in the humanitarian response.

"There is a disjunction between scientific observation and policymakers," Kent says. "People knew last year that things were not looking good, but the interpretation of these warnings never becomes part of consistent policy. We have to be more anticipatory and get away from this rapid response strategy."

But what could have prevented the famine conditions in Somalia? The first thing is to understand why the situation got so bad. It was certainly not just due to drought, for although the rainfall in some areas was the lowest for 60 years, the situation was similar in Kenya and Ethiopia. And some of the worst affected areas in southern Somalia are agricultural zones rather than arid-lands, including the famine-struck Lower Shabelle region, a place that Alinovi remembers as "a really gorgeous place, with rich soil", and where bananas used to be a major crop.

With no government able to impose its influence for 20 years, the country's infrastructure has rotted away, and development assistance has been minimal compared with that to other countries. Warlords held sway until a few years ago when a broad-based Islamic movement known as the Islamic Courts Union took control of Mogadishu and quickly spread its influence. Ethiopia, backed by the US, invaded the country to oust the courts, which it accused of terror links. Out of the remnants of the ICU rose the far more extreme al-Shabaab militia, which now controls most of southern Somalia. The group, which is not homogenous, has links to al-Qaida and is opposed to western influences.

In 2009, it started expelling aid agencies from its territory, including the World Food Programme, and those organisations that remained were unable to use expatriate staff because of the security risks. Furthermore, the terror links meant that the US, the world's biggest donor, was desperate not to allow any of its fund to get into al-Shabaab hands, so its aid funding to Somalia was significantly cut.

Last year, since the main rainy season was very good, and a bumper harvest ensued, the effect of the lack of humanitarian access was not clear. But the cumulative effects of drought in previous years, plus the conflict between Islamists and other militias, meant the bounty did not go far.

"People had already been pushed to the edge," Alinovi says.

According to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation, many small farmers had accumulated debts, and used the profits from last year's harvest to clear them. People kept enough grain to last them to April this year, when the rains were supposed to start. But the rains were late – and poor.

Meanwhile, the scarcity of sorghum and maize that resulted from the weak rains late last year had caused prices to double or triple in some areas. In the absence of effective government – the Transitional Federal Government in Mogadishu is weak, bloated and deeply corrupt – Somalia has become the ultimate free market, and food imports shot up. These reached the al-Shabaab areas, but at three or four times the cost of sorghum, the imported rice and pasta were too expensive for many. With no government safety net, and little or no aid getting in, people started going hungry. Then hunger turned to starvation, and thousands of people left their homes each day, heading for refugee camps in Kenya, Ethiopia or Mogadishu – anywhere that food relief was available.

So could the famine have been avoided? Perhaps not, given the complex dynamics in Somalia, but a lot of people in the humanitarian world feel mistakes were made. Regarding the provision of assistance in al-Shabaab areas, Alivoni says policymakers have mixed the concept of development aid and political support.

"These are two different things. We must focus on people's needs. Basic social services, food security and youth employment are crucial in a crisis, and if there's no government, it's up to the international community to do this. But investment in development has decreased dramatically in recent years."

Kent agrees that more could have been done, and says the humanitarian sector has to find a way to work with "non-state actors", such as al-Shabaab.

"We can negotiate; we are human beings. That may sound sanctimonious, but it is also practical."

Given the frequency of food crises in the Horn, Kent says it should be the testing ground for a new, longer-focused approach to aid that centres on building resilience.

"This is a call to arms – if that's the right phrase in the Horn of Africa – an opportunity. We have seen how costly this crisis has been. But we are we willing to act?"


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