Early warning drowned in policy stasis

Kenya is not a lush country. Rain 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 northeast. The sun is fierce and swirling winds whip up the fine sand underfoot. The town began to grow in the early 1990s, when Somalia descended into chaos and refugees starting pouring across the border, about 80km 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”. 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.

People used to flee the conflict, now the main driver is hunger.

A savage drought gripped large swaths of the Horn of Africa this year, as it has almost 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. Many of those fleeing the country were farmers who had enjoyed a bumper harvest last year and for whom Dadaab’s desert-like scenery would have been alien.

The refugees who reached Dadaab were in a desperate state, 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, on July 20, the United Nations 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 spread to the entire south of Somalia.

‘Dying like flies’
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 1980s and now runs the Somalia country office of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, based in Nairobi. “It is unacceptable. Famine is an issue of the Middle Ages.”

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 civil war and the government’s disastrous agricultural policies. 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.

The international response to the Ethiopian famine was extraordinary, particularly in the United Kingdom, and Live Aid concerts’ fundraising efforts generated tens of millions of pounds that helped 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 United States to help anticipate food crises, allowing policymakers to respond.

Just a few years later, however, people were again dying from hunger in Somalia. 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 agricultural 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 last month during 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 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 for 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 has also experienced major improvements since the 1980s. 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 does not recur.

Stamping authority
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, the 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 were 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 almost 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.

Elmi accepted 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 said. “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 famine conditions in Somalia?

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 Islamic Courts Union rose the far more extreme al-Shabaab militia, which now controls most of southern Somalia. The group, which is not homogeneous, has links to al-Qaeda 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 funds to get into al-Shabaab hands, so it cut its aid funding to Somalia significantly.

Last year, because 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 said.

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 where 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.

Kent agreed that more could have been done and said 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 said, 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. We have seen how costly this crisis has been. But are we willing to act?” —

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