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Early Alerts Consistently Ignored by Donors

Emergencies and food shortages in Africa

Despite warning systems to predict impending food shortages, donors, governments and even humanitarian agencies consistently ignore early alerts. Immediate emergencies often divert donors’ attention from a "maybe" crisis, and questions over corruption and good governance in many drought-affected countries have also been blamed for donors’ delayed response, often until it is too late, the Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN) report.


Computer models based on weather forecasts, crop production and stored food stocks are used by several global agencies to assess potential flashpoints or crisis areas. These are often complemented by communities’ indigenous knowledge, which has warned generations of people living in drought- and famine-prone areas of impending poor seasons. Although national governments and their aid agency partners often launch timely appeals for assistance before a problem becomes a crisis, early donor response almost always falls short of what is needed. It is only when mortality rates soar – or the international media focus on a situation – that action steps up. Similarly, it is difficult to get funding for "slow burn" crises, where multiyear funding is needed.

* "Maybe" crises
"It is the hardest thing in the world to get up a head of steam internationally to a ‘maybe’ crisis," said Daniele Donati, emergency coordinator for Africa for the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). "There are too many other actual problems which take up donors’ attention for them to focus too much on something that may or may not happen."

Early warning systems (EWS) in place globally include the Global Information and Early Warning System (GIEWS) and the FAO’s Food Insecurity Vulnerability Information and Mapping Systems (FIVIMS). Others, like the United States Agency for International Development-sponsored Famine Early Warning System Network (FEWS NET), operate across the world but on a country-by-country basis, producing monthly analyses that point to developing food insecurity. Their alerts are based on predicted weather patterns as well as assessments of the amount of food a given country has in stock to tide it through any impending shortages. Finally, there are regional systems, which concentrate on neighbouring nations whose food insecurity is likely to be linked. Examples are the Southern African Development Community’s EWS network and the Comité Permanent Interétats de Lutte contre la Sécheresse dans le Sahel (CILSS).

All do essentially the same thing: report well before a crisis develops that there may be a problem looming, and call for pre-emptive action. Despite some unsung successes – "You don’t hear about those, because a disaster averted seems unworthy of attention, unlike a disaster developing," said the FAO’s Donati – all too often the warnings are ignored.

* Lessons from Niger 2005
Meagre initial responses to the 2005 crisis in Niger highlight a number of factors relevant to the current desperate situation in the Horn of Africa, where 11 million people in Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia need food aid. Of those, according to the UN, some seven million are classed as being in "urgent" need of help to avert a "humanitarian catastrophe.

One shortcoming of the early warning systems for Niger is that they did not take into account rising food prices, participants at a meeting of development agencies sponsored by Great Britain’s Department for International Development were told in October 2005. While there may have been adequate food supplies in the country in the months leading up to the near-famine, soaring prices meant basic foodstuffs were outside the reach of most subsistence farmers and pastoralists even before things shifted into crisis mode. Questions were also raised at the meeting about trust and credibility – whether donors had confidence in the response strategy proposed by the government of Niger and the UN World Food Programme (WFP), and in the ability of those actors to deliver effective assistance. FEWS NET had only one member of staff in Niger in the months leading up to the crisis. "There was consensus on the need to find ways of having a frank and constructive dialogue much earlier," minutes from the meeting stated. A possible lesson from the Niger crisis was that donors need to engage the UN about the rationale for appeals, rather than simply not funding them if they do not find them credible."

* Perpetual danger
There is a tendency to view "normality" and "crisis" as opposites, to which the appropriate responses are either small-scale development or large-scale food aid. However, this on/off view of crisis masks the reality that many people live perpetually close to the edge of crisis, and that small deviations from the norm may tip them over that edge. Early intervention to stop people’s livelihoods collapsing could in principle prevent escalation to a full-blown crisis.

A reserve of emergency cash would allow aid to be channelled directly to a food-insecurity hotspot and hopefully head off a crisis before it happens. Unfortunately, there is often a lack of willingness among international donors to hand over money to governments whose governance record is weak or who are accused of corruption, oppression or even exacerbating a developing problem. This concern is especially relevant to the Horn of Africa crisis.

Djibouti has little development infrastructure and, like Eritrea, does not wholly welcome outside help with its food shortages. Indeed, Eritrea has not even supplied international officials with relevant data detailing its food stocks, making planning and early warning alerts difficult. Somalia has had no functioning government for 15 years, meaning that humanitarian agencies on the ground are the only conduits through which funds can flow. The country’s transitional federal government, sworn in in Nairobi, Kenya, in 2005, still has not established its authority on the ground inside Somalia. Analysts suggested that the eyes of the world are on the fledgling government’s leaders to see how they cope with the food crisis, seeing it as an early test of the administration’s muscle. Ethiopia’s government, under Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, has over the last 12 months been accused of oppressive reactions to peaceful demonstrations against allegedly rigged elections in May 2005. Kenya’s President Mwai Kibaki heads a fractured coalition mired in a multitude of corruption claims that have soured the international community’s early enthusiasm to help out.

* No excuse not to act
Such concerns over governance cannot stand in the way of adequate international humanitarian interventions that could save lives, aid workers said.

"Most NGOs are just what they say: non-governmental," said Catherine Mahoney, director of communications and fundraising at the African Medical and Research Foundation (AMREF) in Nairobi. "Monies raised by the general public around the world are channelled through organisations like AMREF, and we ensure that the communities themselves directly benefit from our aid efforts. It is clear that fundraising efforts have been hampered due to the current headlines about Kenya, and that is regrettable, to say the least. As the Swahili saying goes: ‘When two elephants fight, it is the grass that gets trampled,’" she said.

The latest figures from WFP showed that donors have committed US $18.7 million, or 8 percent, to the $225 million food appeal to address the Kenyan food crisis. The UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has calculated a $144 million shortfall in the appeal launched for Somalia. In Ethiopia, a more positive picture emerged, with a shortfall of only $38 million.

Oxfam estimated that at most, donors have committed $186 million to fund appeals for the three countries, against $574 million requested – a shortfall of $388 million, or 68 percent. "Although some funding is starting to come through, the response so far is dwarfed by the immediate need," said Paul Smith-Lomas, head of Oxfam in East Africa.

Posted: 27 March 2006.

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