Here we go again: famine in the Horn of Africa

July 6, 2011
Simon Levine, Research Fellow, Humanitarian Policy Group at the ODI

This week, yet again, the spectre of famine in the Horn of Africa has reappeared 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 won’t recover until October at the earliest. 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 won’t 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 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.

And please don’t call the crisis ‘a drought’, although the lack of rain will doubtless be the only problem that gets discussed, as if pastoralists have never developed systems for coping with recurring rain failures: they have – by moving their livestock over the rangelands in search of new water sources and fresh pasture. Famines don’t occur in pastoral areas when rains fail unless they have other problems.

Crises occur when pastoralists’ migration patterns are disrupted and they can’t access reserve pastures and water sources. This is happening when governments refuse to allow pastoralists to move over the extensive areas they need to cover to cope with failed rains or because of conflict. This is the problem now: conflict in Somalia is also preventing pastoralists from Kenya and Ethiopia from going to their drought reserve area, and conflict in the Ogaden region of Ethiopia is preventing pastoralists from accessing their good grazing lands (in the hawd). (And don’t blame the 1984 famine on drought either – that was caused by a long-running civil war.) Migration is also prevented because dry season reserve rangelands have been taken over for settlements, irrigation schemes and to give to investors by governments that refuse to acknowledge that the rangeland belongs to, and is managed by, pastoralists. (The economic debates are long over: pastoralism is a more economically productive use of the rangeland than irrigated farming.)

Crises happen when water sources are established in an uncontrolled way, bringing in populations and livestock to areas which are supposed to be reserved for grazing during droughts, 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, continues to be given for political reasons year in and year out, undermining local food production, discouraging any other diversification of livelihoods and creating huge increases in populations in areas that cannot sustain them.

Crises occur when development investment that could support the resilience of the pastoralist economy is absent, and when livestock trading is hindered by governments worried about controlling tax revenues. And humanitarian crises develop when assistance cannot be given in time, either because conflict and insecurity prevent agencies from operating (as in central and southern Somalia and parts of Southern Ethiopia right 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, and is systemically incapable of responding adequately and on time. These problems have been well analysed and there is no excuse for these inadequacies to be revealed yet again. We know that we need longer-term strategies, backed by programmes with flexible funding that can change track as situations change. These strategies must build on the cross-border mobility needed by pastoralists, not suppress them. Guidelines have been developed for interventions to support livelihood production and marketing so that pastoralists can feed themselves.

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 failure 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 this is the last blog I write on this subject?

A study by HPG on the consequences of the failure of Governments to recognise pastoralists’ institutions for managing the range will be published on the ODI website soon. The next HPN Network Paper, to be published in September, shows how an analysis of the causes of late response to droughts in the Horn of Africa can be used to identify practical ways forward.


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