East Africa Food Crisis

by Save the Children Federation
East Africa Food Crisis
Amy and a family in the refugee camp
Amy and a family in the refugee camp

One of the questions our supporters ask regularly is “What’s it really like over there?” We captured a day in the life of Save the Children Child Protection Advisor, Amy Richmond, while we worked together in the Horn of Africa on the food crisis. Here is her story from a day in the refugee camps in Dollo Ado, Ethiopia.

I wake up every morning with the sun. We ration electricity, so we all make the most of daylight. Breakfast is usually a cup of instant black coffee and a granola bar. I won’t have anything else until I return from the camps. We don’t eat in front of the children. I work every day, so they blur together. On days we have internet, I check my email.

The team huddles at 7:30 a.m. and we set priorities and tasks. One of my goals is to help kids who have been lost, abandoned or orphaned.

First stop is reception where dozens, sometime hundreds, of children arrive each day. As soon as they’re registered, they’re rushed into a Save the Children feeding center – many of them eating their first meal in days.I work with our partners to make sure vulnerable children get into a protective environment and to reunite lost children with their families.

Next, I monitor the camps - making sure kids are in our school, Child Friendly Space or early child development program. I’m also on the lookout for hazards and basically “kid proof” areas for children to play.

One day while surveying the camps, I met a girl named Alima. She lost both her parents to violent conflict in Mogadishu. She told me of her loss and her frightening journey to the refugee camp – 6 days and nights hitchhiking and walking through the desert. We help children like Alima with various programs, as needed, including foster care, education and health programs.

Despite her hardship, all Alima wanted to talk about was finishing high school. Her hopes were music to my ears. When children talk about their future, it’s a positive sign that – with the right support - they can overcome tragedy. I walked Alima to her host family, comforted to know they were caring friends of her parents. Then I went to a teen mothers’ group where the girls get needed support and resources. We help them to start a business such as tailoring or dyeing fabrics. The girls are independent and want to avoid the traps of exploitative professions and relationships.

Around 4:00, we head back for debriefing at the Save the Children compound. It’s a cluster of tents, dorms, offices, garages and warehouses of food to distribute to families in need. It’s more like a shipping company with a few places to sleep. I have a 3” mattress, a blow-up camping pillow and a mosquito net.

One good thing about it being so hot is that we actually get warm showers. At night, we have a modest communal dinner - typically rice and lentils. Sometimes we have goat meat. Then it’s computer time. Writing emails, reports, tracking status, recommendations, proposals.

It’s late at night when I miss my family and friends at home. I just missed my niece Hannah’s birthday. I look forward to returning home, having put in place strong programs that my Ethiopian and Somali colleagues will see through.

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Chronic poverty and malnutrition, conflict, weak health systems, high food prices, poor vaccination coverage, a lack of access to clean water and a changing climate all culminated in a deadly food crisis in 2011. Despite early warnings, livestock perished and thousands of families were pushed closer and closer to the brink of disaster.

It was to become the worst drought in East Africa in 60 years, affecting over 13 million people and killing tens of thousands. In response, Save the Children launched the largest emergency response in our 90-year history. We were already on the ground when the first warning signs were seen. We rapidly scaled up our life-saving programs, delivering health, nutrition, water, crucial life-saving support, protection and education to children and their families.

Thanks to our donors

We are very grateful to all our donors and supporters for their contribution to our work. Thanks to you we have reached over 3.4 million people to date with life-saving and life-sustaining aid.

You’re helping us feed thousands of families, providing many more with clean water and health care across Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia. You are also giving children a future by helping us to provide them with a quality education – many for the first time in their lives. Families are being supported to find sustainable solutions to drought in their communities. But they are not out of danger yet, and many remain on the brink of crisis.


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The Hunger Crisis in the Horn of Africa continues. The general food security situation has stabilized and is improving in most areas of Ethiopia due to the arrival in the markets of crops from the meher (October-February) harvest, the impact of the overall good deyr/hagaya (October-December) rains on water availability and livestock conditions, and the continuing distribution of relief food.

However, worsening water shortages continue to be reported in parts of Ethiopia, with an estimated 690,000 people in need of emergency water assistance. Over the past week, water trucking requirements increased by 37 trucks.

Risk of a poor April-June rainy season remains in Somalia, and people in southern regions continue to be vulnerable to both price and rainfall shocks following the devastating effects of the recent food crisis. As a result, large numbers of people are likely to remain in crisis until the August 2012 harvest, with numbers likely to increase starting in May in Juba, Shabelle and Bay regions, when the benefit of the current harvest will be reduced.

 Save the Children has been supporting treatment for children with severe acute malnutrition at the OTP (Outpatient Therapeutic Program), school feeding programs, training of cook volunteers, rehabilitation of health posts, screening of children for malnutrition and training on malnutrition by the nutrition team.


In the refugee camps, activities in child protection include reunification of children with their relatives, raising of awareness through tea-talk meetings and house to house visits were done to create awareness to parents about the rights of children in general and the reporting mechanism on child abuses within the camp. Family Tracing and Reunification (FTR) teams also traveled to refugee camps to discuss how to collaborate with other FTR teams and help return more lost children to their relatives.

Educational activities included general supervision to ensure good attendance, water supply, hygiene and sanitation and child protection was done in the Dolo Ado camps, rehabilitation of water, shade and latrines, training of cooks on child protection and proper food handling management. 

To help families feed their children, we distributed fresh food vouchers as well as supported livestock vaccination and deworming.

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In Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia, Save the Children’s child protection program reached more than 63,000 children in refugee camps and host communities. In the Kenya’s Dadaab refugee camp, the world’s largest refugee camp with about 463,000 people, we’ve helped counsel children who have lived through traumatic experiences. Many children witnessed disturbing events. In Dadaab, we also operate child friendly spaces, places where kids can get away from the stresses of living in a refugee camp and play and learn in a safe environment.

We supplied life-saving water by trucking it to communities in need. We’ve also set up water systems and distributed purification tablets. Overall, we’ve helped supply 100,000 people and their livestock with water.

In Ethiopia, our livelihoods program reached more than 1.1 million people with food and cash vouchers as well as the wide distribution of agricultural items such as seeds, fuel and animal fodder.

Save the Children has reached about 344,000 people throughout Somalia, the majority of them children. Malnourished children—and those who are severely malnourished—are brought to centers where they receive the right kinds of food. This may be Plumpy’nut, a high-nutrient peanut paste, or nutritious porridge.


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More than 13 million people are still affected by the crisis in the Horn of Africa. There were clear early warning signs many months in advance, yet there was insufficient response until it was far too late. 

Governments, donors, the UN and NGOs need to change their approach to chronic drought situations by managing the risks, not the crisis. 

This means acting on information from early warning systems and not waiting for certainty before responding, as well as tackling the root causes of vulnerability and actively seeking to reduce risk in all activities. To achieve this, we must overcome the humanitarian–development divide.

The emergency in the Horn of Africa in 2011 was no sudden-onset crisis. Thanks to sophisticated early warning systems (EWS), there were clear indications of the impending drought and its consequences.

Forecasts of the impending crisis started in August 2010, as changing weather conditions linked to the La Niña phenomenon were confirmed. These predictions became more strident in early November 2010, when the October to December short rains were forecast to be poor. This prediction was accurate, prompting the Food Security and Nutrition Working Group for East Africa (FSNWG) to set up a La Niña task force.

In December 2010, it stated that ‘pre-emptive action is needed to protect livelihoods and avoid later costly lifesaving emergency interventions’ and called on the humanitarian community (donors, UN, NGOs) ‘to be prepared now at country level.’

Early action is more costeffective. In the 2004–2005 Niger emergency, WFP's initial food deliveries in February 2005 cost $7 per beneficiary, but the response to the appeal was weak; by August the Niger situation had reached crisis,
money began to flow, but the cost per beneficiary had risen to $23.

Multi-agency scenario planning took place in February 2011. A Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWSNET) food security alert dated 15 March made it clear that the current situation was already alarming and would deteriorate further if the March to May rains were as poor as expected. It stated that even average rains would lead to a critical food security situation until May or June, and predicted ‘localized famine conditions [in southern Somalia], including significantly increased child mortality… if the worst case scenario assumptions are realized’.

The FSNWG also warned that ‘failure of the March to May rains is likely to result in a major crisis’. At this stage,
humanitarian actors were advised to begin large-scale contingency/respon planning immediately, and to implement expanded multi-sectoral programmming. Yet this call was not adequately heeded.

The national response 
In Ethiopia and Kenya, major investment in national early warning systems over the past decade has improved the quality of information available. The governments in both countries play leading roles in identifying needs and coordinating the overall response. Arguably, the response was more efficient than the response to previous droughts, reflecting learning and investments made since the last drought, but challenges remain.

In Ethiopia, early action did take place across a number of sectors. For example, the government’s Agricultural Task Force, supported by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), developed a road map for interventions in early 2011. However, government figures on the number of people needing assistance published in February 2011 were among the lowest in recent years (2.8 million). These figures were revised upwards in April, and again in July, to 4.5 million people. Donors have expressed concern that this underestimated the actual numbers of people in need, particularly in the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples (SNNP) region, and that the
lack of timely, accurate information on the scale of need makes it more difficult to access resources from headquarters.
Ethiopia’s Productive Safety Net Programme (PSNP) used its 20 per cent contingency budget, and the Risk Financing Mechanism was also triggered in September 2011 to extend the food provision period for PSNP beneficiaries.

The NGO consortium Joint Emergency Operation Plan (JEOP) was scaled up and extended through 2011. This allowed for an increased number of beneficiaries (more than 300,000 ‘additional transitory’ beneficiaries) as well as
extended help to 6.5m existing PSNP beneficiaries.


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Save the Children Federation

Location: Fairfield, CT - USA
Facebook: Facebook Page
Twitter: @savethechildren
Project Leader:
Penelope Crump
Westport, CT United States

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