Slow response to East Africa famine 'cost 'lives'

A severely malnourished Somali child at a refugee camp in Dadaab, Kenya - July 2011 The US government says 29,000 children under five years old died between May and July 2011

Thousands of needless deaths occurred from famine in East Africa last year because the international community failed to heed early warnings, say two leading British aid organisations.

Oxfam and Save the Children say it took more than six months for aid agencies to act on warnings of imminent famine.

Between 50,000 and 100,000 people have died in Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia.

The agencies say governments, donors, the United Nations and NGOs need to learn from the mistakes.

In a report titled A Dangerous Delay, the agencies say a culture of risk aversion stalled a large-scale aid effort.

They say part of the problem was that the governments of Kenya and Ethiopia were unwilling to admit the scale of the disaster, but also that aid agency staff felt they had seen the problem many times before.

"Many donors wanted proof of a humanitarian catastrophe before acting to prevent one," the report says.

"Sophisticated early warning systems first forecast a likely emergency as early as August 2010, but the full-scale response was not launched until July 2011."

By that time it says "malnutrition rates in parts of East Africa had gone far beyond the emergency threshold and there was high profile media coverage of the crisis".

'Grotesque situation'

At one stage during the East African famine the UN estimated that 10 million people were in need of humanitarian assistance.

Hundreds of thousands of refugees went to camps in search of food, especially those from parts of Somalia where government forces have been fighting Islamist al-Shabab militants.


This is a searingly honest report. The agencies admit warnings from a purpose built system that combines satellite imagery with on the ground reporting were not taken seriously enough.

More than six months after those original warnings, when the famine had already taken hold, Oxfam and Save the Children declared the crisis their top priorities. So what went wrong?

Partly it was because the governments of Kenya and Ethiopia were unwilling to underline the scale of the disaster, but partly it was because aid agency staff on the ground failed to persuade others in the agency of the urgency of the crisis.

The openness in the report is refreshing, but how will the international community respond if aid agencies in future call for help, only to find they have overestimated the scale of a problem?

Will they not be accused of scare-mongering to increase the revenues of their organisations? It's a difficult balance to get right.

The report calls on all parties to take crisis warnings more seriously.

"All members of the international system must improve their ability to prevent the worst effects of hunger crises before they happen," it says.

"The scale of death and suffering, and the financial cost, could have been reduced if early warning systems had triggered an earlier, more substantial response.

"In particular, national governments must fulfil their responsibilities to people caught up in crises and demonstrate leadership."

The agencies are urging governments to endorse the Charter to End Extreme Hunger, launched in September.

Kenya and Norway have signed up to it and the UK has expressed support.

"Britain has led the world in tackling food insecurity in East Africa in the last year and we continue to urge others to prioritise this critical issue," the UK's International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell told the BBC.

In the report, Oxfam and Save the Children looked at their own role in the crisis as well as that of other agencies.

"We all bear responsibility for this dangerous delay," said Oxfam's Chief Executive Barbara Stocking.

"It is shocking that the poorest people are still bearing the brunt of a failure to respond swiftly and decisively."

Save the Children's Chief Executive, Justin Forsyth, said clear warnings had been ignored.

"We can no longer allow this grotesque situation to continue; where the world knows an emergency is coming but ignores it until confronted with TV pictures of desperately malnourished children," he said.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 82.

    I am old enough now to say I dont care. Famine and disease have been a brake on the population of Africa for centuries. If they are not at a natural point in their climate , resources and society to change, then nothing the world can do, bar a power like China taking over the whole continent, can help them. Best to stop all aid and ban arms sales to the continent and let them work it out .

  • rate this

    Comment number 76.

    Africa is not a poor continent and does not need aid. The wealth from oil should be put back into building an infrastructure that can support the population.
    Individual countries have leaders too willing to sit back and accept back handers from developed nations who rape the land of it's resources, leaving nothing for the majority. It will only get worse as China moves in to take their share.

  • rate this

    Comment number 75.

    AID SHOULD BE STOPPED! but think deeper.... first of all, we are the promoters and creators of those "fake democracies" in Africa, that aren't able or willing to better their situation by their own efforts. We made "being an African leader" a profitable job. We have made aid to fail and we have spoilt Africa. And if we stop aid today the ones who will suffer most will be the already suffering peop

  • rate this

    Comment number 70.

    People can't help where they are born. How must it feel to watch your kids starve to death when there was nothing you could do about it. Some of the comments made already are really callous.

  • rate this

    Comment number 63.

    The thing that costs lives in Africa is the corrupt politicians. Plying Africa with aid as we have done for the last 20-40 years just leads them to rely on that aid. It is time Africa took responsibility for its own peoples. The African Union should be sorting these issues out.

    I will not give to African charities as it is just giving corrupt African politicians money.


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