2011 relief innovations may have saved lives in Horn of Africa

Katy Migiro – WNN Improve It

Somali refugee children share a meal inside a tent in Dollo Ado, Ethiopia.
Somali refugee children share a meal inside a tent in Dollo Ado, Ethiopia. Fleeing drought and famine in their home country, thousands of Somalis have taken up residence across the border in Dollo Ado, where a complex of camps is assisted by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) August 2011. Image: Eskinder Debebe/UNPhoto

(WNN/TLW/AN) Nairobi, KENYA, AFRICA: Thousands of people in the Horn of Africa died needlessly last year because of the slow response to early warning signs, Oxfam and Save the Children say in a report.

Some 13 million people in Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya went hungry last year, with 250,000 in southern Somalia still facing imminent death six months after famine was declared.

“The greatest tragedy is that the world saw this disaster coming but did not prevent it,” the United Nations’ former Emergency Relief Coordinator Jan Egeland said in the foreword.

“That the needless haemorrhage of human lives took place again in the Horn of Africa in 2011, in spite of all our knowledge and all our experience, is an outrage.”

Between 50,000 and 100,000 people died between April and August 2011, more than half of them children under five, according to estimates.

“We are talking about thousands of lives that could have been saved, millions of dollars that could have been saved,” Elise Ford, a researcher on the report, told AlertNet.

The report identifies three main reasons for the international system’s failure to respond in time:

  • a culture of risk aversion – fear of the financial and reputational risks of getting it wrong
  • fear of being too interventionist and undermining communities’ own capacities to cope
  • drought fatigue – a resignation to high levels of malnutrition

The report, ‘A Dangerous Delay: The cost of late response to early warnings in the 2011 drought in the Horn of Africa’, criticises donors for refusing to provide significant sums of aid until malnutrition rates hit around 40 percent – far beyond the emergency threshold of 15 percent – and the crisis hit the media.

“We can no longer allow this grotesque situation to continue; where the world knows an emergency is coming but ignores it until confronted with TV pictures of desperately malnourished children,” said Save the Children’s Chief Executive Justin Forsyth.


Sophisticated monitoring of weather forecasts and other factors including food prices and malnutrition rates can now provide advance warning of crises.

The report calls for national governments, donors, the United Nations and non-governmental organisations to take action at the earliest signs rather than wait for people to start dying.

“If you look at the cost of inaction, both in terms of lives and in monetary terms, we should be paying this ‘insurance’ against the worst effects of drought,” said Ford.

“The costs are so low of actually taking that precaution, but the cost of inaction is so high.”

Ford said East Africa had “the Mercedes of warning systems” and that there were signs of an oncoming food crisis as early as August 2010.

But the international system did not respond sufficiently until famine was declared in Somalia 11 months later.

“Communities and humanitarian field workers were denied the tools and resources necessary to save lives before it was too late,” Egeland said.

The international community’s slow response to the 2011 hunger crisis followed the same pattern as that to previous droughts, such as in the Sahel in 2005 and in Kenya in 2005-6 and 2008-9, the report said.

“The early warning systems performed, but decision makers chose not to respond,” it added.

Some key recommendations are:

  • All actors to develop a system of triggers for responding to early warning signals, with detailed monitoring and emergency plans (who does what when)
  • More flexibility in long-term development programmes so that they can shift to emergency aid if the situation begins to deteriorate
  • Governments to endorse the Charter to End Extreme Hunger – a new initiative whereby signatories commit to invest more in local food production, provide cash to protect the poorest 10 percent from the impact of food crises and respond to early warning signs according to people’s needs, not political concerns

See also: TIMELINE – Horn of Africa hunger crisis


Katy Migiro is an AlertNet correspondent based in Nairobi. Before that she reported for Voice of America’s East Africa Bureau and worked as a analyst for the U.N. Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Kenya. She is also studying for an MA in International Relations at USIU-Africa.


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