Why east Africa's famine warning was not heeded
Psychological and organisational reasons lay behind the poor response to
this famine - not the hoary old 'lack of political will'
* Hugo Slim <http://www.guardian.co.uk/profile/hugo-slim
> guardian.co.uk, Friday 20 January 2012
Natural sciences can predict certain things quite well once they have
established particular natural laws. But political and social sciences are
notoriously bad at it. This is not surprising. Human events are deeply
unpredictable, so we tend not to be too hard on ourselves when we miss
things like the Arab spring.
But should we be much harder on ourselves when we miss a famine? Surely,
there is quite a lot of hard science in a famine - indicators of drought,
rising food prices, distressed asset sales, malnutrition and migration
flows. Presumably, by now, we can predict a famine, especially
e-horn-africa> in the Horn of Africa that has been saturated by government,
UN and NGO "famine early warning systems" since the horrendous famine of
According to the Department for International Development, the current
famine in east Africa may have killed up to 100,000 people. A new
-east-africa/> report by Save the Children and Oxfam says they saw this
coming, but politicians did not take their warnings seriously enough and
acted too late.
The British government has made a quite exceptional commitment to foreign
aid at a time of extreme cuts in public spending and in
> Andrew Mitchell, the Department for
International Development has a minister with a deep personal commitment to
humanitarian action. Why famine early warning is not heeded is a complex
human problem, perhaps even a so-called "wicked problem". It is certainly
not one that can be easily answered by that lazy refrain - "a lack of
political will". Few governments have shown as much political will on aid as
So, why was international action late? Save the Children and Oxfam give a
number of reasons; some of these are psychological and some are
organisational. Psychologically, they suggest that government officials were
reluctant to call a crisis until there was a crisis. This reluctance had
three main drivers: a fear of getting it wrong; a fear of being too
interventionist and undermining community coping; and "fatigue" and
"resignation" in the face of so many droughts in such ecologically fragile
parts of the world. I imagine these psychological reasons are pretty
accurate. When I was a UN early-warning monitor in Ethiopia in 1987, I was
always worried that I might call it wrong and look very stupid if food aid
was piling up in the road as Ethiopians were bringing in a massive harvest.
This report's suggestion of agreeing a "no-regrets" culture if you overreact
seems psychologically sensible.
There are budgeting and organisational problems, too. Corralling hundreds of
NGOs and UN agencies to agree the scale of a problem and then to act in
concert is always going to be difficult. More importantly, budgets are still
divided too strictly between emergency and development funds. You can't
start doing emergency work from a development budget and vice versa. Quite
rightly, Save the Children and Oxfam are asking for more flexible funding
that moves between the two on a basis of agreed "trigger" points. Only by
treating famine and development within a single mindset will we end the
damaging split thinking that requires aid either to be laidback and long
term, or hyperactive and hectic.
Britain is a thought leader in this area of global policy and needs to
encourage others to follow suit, but international politics is only one part
of the complex problem of famine prevention. The other is national politics.
Millions of poor people who are vulnerable to famine live in fragile
ecological areas that need peace, public investment, access to credit and
governments that are focused on their needs.
It is politicians in Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia who bear primary
responsibility for preventing famine among their citizens. They need to be
alert to early-warning systems, and make the most of international aid and
economic growth for the poorest in their countries. But their hesitations,
conflicts and power plays are just as much to blame for the late response to
this famine. As warnings were raised about this crisis, the Kenyan political
elite was obsessed with itself in its endless power-sharing wrangle. The
Somali elites were at war. And, as usual in Ethiopia, everyone in the aid
world was far too frightened to criticise prime minister Meles Zenawi's
judgment of the crisis in case they got thrown out.
Managing food crises will be a continuing global challenge as prices rise
and environments change. In many ways, the international aid system is now
functioning as a nascent global safety net. This is real progress and means
that hungry people can now be reached and helped in any part of the globe.
All of us should expect our politicians and civil servants to pay special
attention to the early-warning systems that guide this safety net. And, as
Save the Children and Oxfam point out, we need to make it clear that we
would rather politicians acted too early than too late.
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Received on Fri Jan 20 2012 - 10:23:27 EST