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.