The East African food crisis: beyond drought and food aid

11 July 2011

Millions of East Africans are once again threatened by famine. The last major famine in the region occurred in Ethiopia, not in 1984 when an estimated 590,000 people died, but in the country’s Somali Region in 2000 when between 70,000 and 120,000 lives were lost.

Just over a decade later, the humanitarian response has started too late, as it did in 1983 and 1999, and many preventable deaths have already been reported. What are the real causes of this crisis – beyond drought – and what are the most appropriate responses – beyond food aid?

Drought, or vulnerability to drought?

Drought-triggered food crises are regular events in arid and semi-arid areas of the Horn of Africa. The famine of 2000 in Ethiopia followed a sequence of droughts that started in 1997. In northern Kenya, a complete failure of the short rains in 2005 caused 30-40 per cent livestock losses and distress migration of pastoralists, 3.5 million of whom needed emergency assistance. Another drought followed in 2008/9, and the current crisis was precipitated by many districts recording the driest rainy season in 60 years.

But drought doesn’t cause famine: vulnerability to drought causes famine. The causes of vulnerability in the Horn are complex, but include (1) climate change (not lower rainfall, but more erratic rainfall); (2) policy failure (not least a shameful neglect of basic service provision for pastoralist communities); and (3) conflict (most visibly in Somalia, also low-level violence in southern Ethiopia and northern Kenya). Two common factors across all affected countries are persistent droughts and a persistent failure to support the efforts of local people to adapt to their increasingly marginal environments.

One crisis, many responses

The first response must be compassion – humanitarian relief needs to be fully supported at every level, from individual donations to institutional advocacy. For many years, people in northern Kenya’s arid and semi-arid districts have received food aid for several months each year. More ambitious social protection interventions, like the Hunger Safety Net Programme (HSNP) in northern Kenya and the Productive Safety Net Programme (PSNP) in Ethiopia, deliver regular cash transfers to 300,000 Kenyans and over 8 million Ethiopians, with the aims of boosting consumption, protecting household assets and promoting investment in livelihoods. The Centre for Social Protection, based at IDS, is monitoring and evaluating the impacts of HSNP and PSNP. Significant positive gains have been recorded in household food security and other indicators of wellbeing.

In Somalia, prolonged civil conflict and insecurity and an absence of government means that these forms of support are virtually absent. However, the inability of conventional social protection to build resilience against severe shocks has been dramatically exposed by the ongoing emergency. Because the underlying causes of vulnerability in the Horn were never systematically addressed, the crisis never really went away.

Second, better analysis is needed, not just to sharpen responses to the current crisis but to reduce the likelihood of similar crises in future. (1) What caused the crisis? Drought was certainly the trigger, but understanding causes requires analysing livelihoods, policy processes (in agriculture, pastoralism, social protection) and national, regional and global politics. (2) How severe is the crisis? How many people need immediate relief? How badly affected are they? What assistance will they need to rebuild their livelihoods once food aid stops? (3) Why was the response late? Did early warning systems fail to sound the alarm? Or did governments and donor agencies fail to respond, and if so, why?

Third, more effective risk management mechanisms are needed. These could include: (1) making social protection interventions more flexible, by scaling up the HSNP and PSNP in difficult years, or (2) offering low-paid work on demand, along the lines of India’s Employment Guarantee Scheme, or (3) subsidising weather-indexed crop and livestock insurance schemes (this is being piloted in Kenya). Recent thinking on ‘adaptive social protection’, which links social protection, climate change adaptation and disaster risk management, shows how an integrated approach can enhance resilience to shocks and stresses.

Finally, the most sustainable solution is to build more resilient livelihoods. This includes conflict resolution mechanisms and lifting restrictions on mobility and cross-border trade. It also implies supporting alternative livelihoods and exits from pastoralism for those who choose this (but not forced sedentarisation). Governments need to invest seriously in education, especially for girls, to empower the next generation with the skills they need to pursue less climate-sensitive livelihood options.

Act now, plan for tomorrow

The humanitarian imperative to minimise avoidable suffering demands that we act now. But equally important is to take steps to minimise avoidable suffering in the future. Only by understanding what went wrong this time can the links from early warning to response be strengthened, effective risk management mechanisms installed and climate-sensitive livelihoods made more resilient. Ultimately, this requires political commitment at the highest levels. In the meantime, as individuals we must do what we can. Please donate.

Stephen Devereux is an IDS Fellow.

Photo: Dieter Telemans / Panos.