Science - August 18, 2011

No money until there is hunger

Famine broke out in the Horn of Africa in spite of the famine early warning systems and previous alarms being raised. What went wrong? Extra donor funding for emergency aid was released too late, says Thea Hilhorst, professor of Disaster Studies.

┬┤The early warning system did work. The warnings started coming in last year in September, saying that a famine was on its way in the Horn of Africa, because of persistent drought. Ethiopia was alert enough to response by asking for extra food from the World Food Programme. Kenya went into action too. The fact is that at some point the World Food Programme had exhausted its budget. Then governments had to fork out some extra funding. And they only do that once the famine is already there, because only then can they score political points with aid.
Emergency aid had been brought to a standstill in Somalia for political reasons. The area that is controlled by the Al-Shabaab militia was no-go for aid organizations. The United States, the main donors of food aid, see Al-Shabaab as a terrorist organization and declared aid to Al-Shabaab illegal. This meant aid organizations that paid 'tax' to Al-Shabaab in order to source food locally ran the risk of being indicted. So they watched their step. Two weeks ago the US suspended that law in order to make emergency aid possible. There is a longstanding need for food aid in the Horn of Africa. Ethiopia gets aid from the World Food Programme every year to help feed 5 million people. Without that systematic aid, 10 to 15 million people would rely on emergency aid. The government has set up a development programme in order to ensure that the residents can either grow or buy food themselves. We are doing research on that programme. It is not easy because of poor soils, overpopulation, climate change and malfunctioning markets. The goal of the programme, helping people to stand on their own two feet, is great, but in practice there are problems. You cannot replace emergency aid with structural development just like that.'