How to Solve the Food Crisis in East Africa



Famine in the 21st century is immoral and unnecessary, said Stephen Devereux, a development economist and fellow at the Institute of Development Studies. The United Nations declared a famine in parts of southern Somalia as malnutrition and mortality rates have gone up to alarming levels and more than a thousand people are arriving daily in refugee camps. Just as in the previous food crises that hit eastern Africa, international assistance has mostly been emergency response and not so much on instituting preventive measures and long-term solutions.

In an interview with Voices of Youth, Devereux, whose expertise includes food security, famine and social protection, suggested three ways to help people cope with food insecurity and prevent the escalation of famines. The first is to implement regular social welfare programs. An example of this is the hunger safety net program in northern Kenya which provides monthly cash transfers to poor families. The financial support enables them to meet their basic needs and is particularly helpful when food prices are soaring. A similar initiative is also being implemented in selected regions in Ethiopia.

The second is to establish an insurance mechanism for farmers and pastoralists. Under this scheme, they would receive cash payouts in the event of crop or livestock failure due to low rainfall. The World Food Program, in partnership with insurance group AXA, has launched a drought insurance pilot project in Ethiopia in 2006 that would’ve had a payout of $7 million. The amount would be paid to WFP, which would give the funds to the Ethiopian government for disbursement as cash transfers to affected households. There was enough rainfall that year though so no payments were disbursed.

The third coping mechanism is to provide alternative livelihoods which, Devereux admitted, could be controversial. For pastoralist societies, their livelihood is not just a job or a source of income; it is their way of life. Altering this will have lasting impacts on their communities. He pointed out however, that farming and livestock-raising are high-risk livelihoods given the conditions in the region. Of course, they should not be forced to do something else but they should at least have access to alternative sources of income, he said.

He is also calling for a political solution to the crisis in Somalia. Suffering from armed conflict and with no functioning central government, the country has been the most severely affected by the food crisis in the region. Since the rebel group Al-Shabab, which controls most of southern Somalia, has imposed a ban on aid groups, it is difficult to get accurate information on what’s going on in the country.

Somalia is politically isolated. It has no friends, he said. As part of a longer term strategy, the international community should engage with the country in a more constructive way. Having a functional government is also crucial to the effective implementation of long-term solutions.

On the short term, food aid is essential in helping the 12 million people who are in danger of starvation in East Africa. Devereux said aid agencies and relief organizations are doing a good job in responding to the crisis, raising awareness and mobilizing public support. The delay however, in humanitarian assistance has had deadly costs. People including children were already dying before the international community responded.

The drought had started last year, he pointed out. There was already crop failure, animals were dying, and yet there was a gaping delay between the onset of the dry spell and the arrival of humanitarian assistance. Response is often mobilized only after malnutrition and mortality rates are already at high levels and by then, it’s too late. The definitions of emergency, famine and crisis should be used in a more sensitive way, he said.

He added that aside from focusing on key indicators like malnutrition and mortality, we should also keep an eye on indicators of vulnerability like food prices. Monitoring the latter can provide early information on a potential crisis and preventive measures can then be put in place.

In the analysis of where things went wrong, Devereux said the question that should be asked is why the early warning systems failed. A lot of money was spent on them, they had good communication system and made use of advanced technology, and yet they didn’t work as well as they should have.

At this time, the improvement of the situation in East Africa depends mostly on the onset of rain, he said. If the rains come in October this year, then things may start to get better in January or February. But if the dry spell continues, then the crisis could drag on well into next year. Recovery from the famine would take at least two to three years.

Photo: © UNICEF/NYHQ2011-1183/Kate Holt. Somalia, 2011. On 24 July, an armed soldier from the Transitional Federal Government monitors a large crowd of children and women who are waiting behind a barbed-wired barrier for the start of a food distribution, in the Badbado camp in Mogadishu, the capital. The camp, established three weeks ago, shelters almost 30,000 people who have been displaced from rural areas more affected by the drought.

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