DIE: Here we go again. Famine revisited…

    The spectre of famine in the Horn of Africa is back on our television screens and in our newspapers. Across large parts of Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia, livestock are dying in huge numbers because they cannot get water and pasture. Ominously, no rains are due until September, so even if the next rainy season is a good one pasture will not recover until October at the earliest. People though rely on milk and on animals to sell – it can be months before milk production comes back to normal and years before the surviving animals have bred and produced animals that can be sold, to enable livestock keepers to look after themselves. Until then things can only get worse, and the cruellest irony of all is that the first rains bring a cold shock that many of the undernourished surviving animals will not be able to survive. Hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of livestock will die. Tens of thousands of children may well die too, while hundreds of thousands of stricken people flock to refugee camps in search of food and medical care. Although humanitarian agencies are gearing themselves up as fast as they can to mount a response, it is far too late to address anything but the worst symptoms. Measures that could have kept animals alive – and providing milk, and income to buy food – would have been much cheaper than feeding malnourished children, but the time for those passed with very little investment.

    We have been here before. There were droughts and crises in the Horn of Africa in 1999/2000, 2002/3, 2005/6 and 2008/9. Each time the response has been the same – late and inadequate. Each time we have had ample warning, and this time is no exception, with the crisis well signalled in November last year, so early warning systems are not to blame for the lack of reaction.

    The crisis is being called “a drought” because we prefer our disasters to be simple and “natural”. The affected people are mainly pastoralists who have developed their way of life precisely for coping with recurring rain failures, by moving their livestock over the rangelands in search of new water sources and fresh pasture. Droughts do not cause famines for pastoralists: crises only occur in pastoral areas when they have other problems as well.

    Crises occur when their migration patterns are disrupted and they cannot access reserve pastures and water sources. This happens when governments refuse to allow them to move over the extensive areas they need to cope with failed rains or because of conflict. This is the main problem now: conflict in Somalia is preventing pastoralists from Kenya and Ethiopia from going to their drought reserve areas, and conflict in the Ogaden region of Ethiopia is preventing access to good grazing lands. (The 1984 famine is also unfairly blamed on drought – that, too, was caused by a long-running civil war.) Migration is prevented because dry season reserve rangelands have been taken over by governments for settlements, for irrigation schemes and to give to investors.

    Crises happen when water sources are established in an uncontrolled way, bringing populations and livestock to settle in areas which should be reserved for seasonal grazing; when border closures send food prices rocketing, as happened in the 2003 crisis; or when food aid, badly needed if a famine is not averted, is given for political reasons year in and year out, as in parts of Kenya, undermining the development of other initiatives and attracting permanent populations to settle in areas that cannot sustain them.

    Crises occur when development investment is absent, and when livestock trading is hindered by governments worried about controlling tax revenues. And humanitarian crises develop when assistance is not given in time, either because conflict and insecurity have prevented agencies from operating (as in parts of Somalia until just now, and parts of Southern Ethiopia even now) or because governments, donors and aid agencies yet again insist on waiting until they see millions of undernourished children before they respond to the inevitable logic of an unfolding crisis.

    The humanitarian “system” is geared to responding to the wrong signals – we respond to malnutrition (which develops after people have no food), whereas action should start when we can see that soon they will not have any. We should – and could – have responded a year ago by helping repair all the small reservoirs that were destroyed (ironically, by floods) and which would have ensured that every drop of rain was used. We should – and could – have been helping livestock build up resistance to the lean time, helping pastoralists sell them before they were too thin. A small cash grant months ago would have helped many to keep their herds alive and families. And when we did not do this, we should still have responded with massive humanitarian aid before we reached the scale of human suffering that we call “famine”, when we knew that this was inevitable. But this kind of response needs many agencies to work together, and we already know that governments, donors, the UN and other agencies are incapable of doing this. We know exactly why. There is no excuse for these inadequacies to be revealed yet again. We know what needs to happen: longer-term strategies, backed by programmes with flexible funding that can change track as situations change and when necessary, emergency interventions to protect livestock production and marketing so that pastoralists can feed themselves. These strategies must build on the mobility needed by pastoralists, not suppress them.

    The current humanitarian crisis in the Horn of Africa will get worse over the coming months. Its inevitability does not make it a “natural” disaster. The failure of this season’s rains may be the last straw, but only because the camel’s back had already been put under intolerable strain by politics and the failures of the aid system. As aid actors we can have only limited impact on the politics, but we can and should be able to change the aid system. Who wants to bet, though, that we will really try?

    By Simon Levine, Research Fellow, Overseas Development Institute (ODI)

    © German Development Institute, Bonn.