© 2013 Diana

A Dangerous Delay

From “A Dangerous Delay – The cost of late response to early warnings  in the 2011 drought in the Horn of Africa”


The 2011 crisis in the Horn of Africa has been the most severe emergency of its kind this century. More than 13 million people are still affected, with hundreds of thousands placed at risk of starvation. One estimate suggests that 50,000–100,000 people have died. This crisis unfolded despite having been predicted. Although brought on by drought, it was human factors which turned the crisis into a deadly emergency.

Tragically, the 2011 crisis is not an isolated case. The response to drought is invariably too little too late, representing a systemic failure of the international system – both ‘humanitarian’ and ‘development’. The result of this failure is that the people affected – this time in the Horn of Africa: Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia* – lose their livelihoods and potentially their lives. Women are often worst affected, as they generally eat last and least. And hunger threatens children’s health and development, and thus the well-being of future generations.

This briefing examines the factors that allowed a drought in the Horn of Africa to develop into a full-scale crisis of hunger and livelihoods. While recognising the ultimate importance of enhancing the resilience of communities themselves, the primary focus of this briefing is the response of the international system.

We argue that all members of the international system must improve their ability to prevent the worst effects of hunger crises before they happen. In particular, national governments must fulfil their responsibilities to people caught up in crises and demonstrate leadership.

This should include endorsing the Charter to End Extreme Hunger – a new initiative generating increasing state support that outlines key ways to reduce the impact of these crises (see Annex 1).1 If they are acted on, extreme hunger events can be averted in the future. It is a major challenge, but the knowledge exists to address it. One of the key recommendations of the Charter is earlier response to early warnings.

This briefing outlines how, in the Horn of Africa, there were indications that a crisis was coming from as early as August 2010. In November 2010, these warnings were repeated and they became more strident in early 2011. Some actors did respond, but full scale-up only really happened after the rains had failed for a second successive time. By this time, in some places people were already dying. Many had lost their livelihoods, and many more – particularly women and children – were suffering extreme hardship. The scale of death and suffering, and the financial cost, could have been reduced if early warning systems had triggered an earlier, more substantial response.

Why was the international system so slow in responding to accurate early warnings? One reason is that raising large sums for humanitarian response currently depends on getting significant media and public attention – which did not happen until the crisis point was reached. But this misses the point. Waiting for a situation to reach crisis point before responding is the wrong way to address chronic vulnerability and recurrent drought in places like the Horn of Africa. Instead, the international community must change how it operates to meet the challenge of responding to recurrent crises in regions such as this.

Decision makers are often not comfortable with uncertainty and forecasts, requiring hard data before initiating a response. So, while many people ‘on the ground’ in the region – representatives of many agencies and institutions, and communities themselves – were aware of the impending crisis and trying to set alarm bells ringing in January and February 2011, they were not always able to get traction ‘further up the chain’ from those who needed to act to avert another crisis.

This needs to change. All actors need to adopt standard risk management approaches – so if there is a high probability of a highimpact event occurring, interventions must begin immediately. Of course, forecasts can be wrong, but managing risk to reduce the impact of a crisis is better than hoping one will never happen. Risk management and disaster risk reduction (DRR) must be an integral part of both emergency response and longer-term development programmes. These principles of risk reduction and management are well accepted in other fields, such as insurance, where paying money upfront is regarded as a responsible approach to prevent high losses in the event of a crisis.

There also has to be a fundamental shift to integrated, long-term, flexible programming that aims to reduce the risks faced by people whose livelihoods are extremely vulnerable. Long-term development work is best placed to respond to drought – with established programmes, experienced staff, an understanding of vulnerabilities – and should adapt interventions quickly as drought conditions worsen.

All actors – governments, donors, NGOs, the UN – need to change the way they do things to make a bigger difference to people who will be affected by the next drought.

There are already commitments to address these ongoing problems. Governments of the Horn of Africa region committed to prepare and deliver on national strategies at the Nairobi summit in September 2011.2 The crisis has reinvigorated the Horn of Africa Plan of Action,3 and many are considering the lessons from the UK’s Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) evaluation and others.

Together, the international community and national governments must seize the momentum and commit to change now, so that next time more is done, more quickly, to protect vulnerable people and to fulfil the objectives of the Charter to End Extreme Hunger. Another food crisis is already looming in the Sahel, with millions of people across at least five countries at risk of serious food insecurity, so there is an urgent need to put what has been learned in the Horn of Africa crisis into practice.

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