Thousands more lives and millions of dollars could have been saved with an earlier response to East Africa food crisis

Campaigns and Advocacy, Emergencies, Humanitarian Advocacy article written on the 18 Jan 2012

Lessons learnt can help prevent future disasters and save lives

Thousands more lives and millions of dollars could have been saved if the international community had taken decisive action on early warnings of a hunger crisis in East Africa, according to a new report by international aid agencies Oxfam and Save the Children.

The report, A Dangerous Delay, says a culture of risk aversion caused a six-month delay in the large-scale aid effort because humanitarian agencies and national governments were too slow to scale up their response to the crisis, and the international community wanted proof of a humanitarian catastrophe before acting to prevent one.

“We all bear responsibility for this dangerous delay that cost lives in East Africa and we need to learn the lessons of the late response,” said Oxfam Australia’s acting Director of International Programs, Andrew Hartwich.

“It’s shocking that the poorest people are still bearing the brunt of a failure to respond swiftly and decisively. We know that acting early saves lives but collective risk aversion meant the international community was reluctant to scale up its response until it was certain there was a crisis.”

Save the Children’s Director of Emergency Response Scott Gilbert said: “Too often we have witnessed global inaction on world hunger, and we’ve had to rely on the news media to shock us into action with images of desperately malnourished children.

“The early warning signs were clear. If the international community had committed funds when it mattered most then thousands more lives would have been saved in East Africa.”

Sophisticated early warning systems first forecast a likely emergency as early as August 2010 but the full-scale response was not launched until July 2011 when malnutrition rates in parts of the region had gone far beyond the emergency threshold and there was high profile media coverage of the crisis.

Save the Children and Oxfam say more funding for food emergencies should be sought and released as soon as accurate early warnings are received, rather than the current system which funds large scale emergency work only when hunger levels have reached tipping-point – by which time lives have already been lost and the cost of the response is much greater.

The agencies are calling on governments to overhaul their response to food crises in order to better prevent crises from occurring, mitigate their impact when they do occur as well as build the resilience of communities and national governments to help them avert a crisis.

While some positive action by governments did take place – such as improved early warning systems and social protection schemes that meant families were given some early support – much more was needed across the region.

Although it is impossible to calculate exactly how many people died as a result of drought, one estimate suggests that between 50,000 and 100,000 lives were lost between April and August 2011, more than half of them children under the age of five. Today, Somalia remains the most acute food crisis in the world, with hundreds of thousands of people still at risk.

Some early action did take place. Many aid agencies, including Oxfam and Save the Children, had begun a small-scale response by December 2010, and tried to focus international attention on the impending emergency. But overall, the scale of crisis outstripped these efforts, and more costly interventions had to be taken at a later stage. Trucking five litres of water per day as a last resort lifesaving intervention to 80,000 people in Ethiopia costs more than $3 million for five months, compared to $900,000 to prepare water sources in the same area for an oncoming drought.

Across East Africa, providing early support to families to keep their animals healthy and markets functioning would have helped prevent soaring malnutrition rates, as hundreds of thousands lost their livelihoods when their livestock was wiped out by drought.

The report, which comes ahead of global meetings of the African Union as well as the World Economic Forum at Davos, is a timely reminder that the international community must act fast to avert disaster in nearby West Africa, where a looming food crisis threatens to affect millions of people. A recent Save the Children assessment in Niger shows families in the worst hit areas are already struggling with around one third less food, money and fuel than is necessary to survive.

Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said: “Achieving global food and nutrition security is the challenge of our time, and our success in alleviating widespread hunger will depend, in large part, on our ability to identify the early warning signs of food crises, and respond immediately and effectively.”

Notes to editors

• Broadcast-quality footage and photographs of the East Africa crisis and response are available.

• Widespread support for livelihoods threatened by drought would have done much to prevent malnutrition taking hold. The death of livestock due to the drought wiped out the income of hundreds of thousands of families, leaving them unable to afford to buy enough food. Early supplementary feeding of livestock could have kept herds alive, markets functioning and could ultimately have helped prevent the malnutrition that killed so many.

• Save the Children has reached more than 280,000 people in Somalia, in addition to more than one million in Ethiopia and over 440,000 in Kenya. Oxfam has reached about 1.5 million people in Somalia, 300,000 in Ethiopia and one million in Kenya with clean water, sanitation services, therapeutic feeding for malnourished children, cash and livelihood support.

• Early warning systems in the Sahel region in West Africa show that overall cereal production is 25 per cent lower than the previous year, and food prices are 40 per cent higher than the five-year average. The last food crisis in the region, in 2010, affected 10 million people.

A copy of the report is available online here. For interviews or more information please contact Oxfam Australia Media Coordinator Chee Chee Leung on 0400 732 795