Slow response to East Africa famine 'cost lives'
NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — Thousands of people died needlessly and millions of dollars were wasted because the international community did not respond fast enough to early signs of famine in East Africa, aid agencies said Wednesday, while warning of a new hunger crisis in West Africa.
Most rich donor nations waited until the crisis in the Horn of Africa was in full swing before donating a substantial amount of money, according to the report by aid groups Oxfam and Save the Children. A food shortage had been predicted as early as August 2010, but most donors did not respond until famine was declared in parts of Somalia in July 2011.
The report even blamed aid agencies, saying they were too slow to scale up their response.
"We all bear responsibility for this dangerous delay that cost lives in East Africa and need to learn the lessons of the late response," said Oxfam head Barbara Stocking.
The British government estimates that between 50,000 and 100,000 people died from the famine, mostly Somalis. Ethiopia and Kenya were also affected but aid agencies were able to work more easily there than in war-ravaged Somalia.
More than half of those who died are believed to be children. The United Nations says 250,000 Somalis are still at risk of starvation and more than 13 million people need aid.
Among the report's findings:
— Donors expressed concern that Ethiopia underestimated the number of people in need and found that the lack of timely, accurate information made it more difficult to provide aid. Ethiopian government figures published in February 2011 said 2.8 million people were in need, and those figures were revised two months later and again in July 2011 to 4.5 million people.
— Kenya's food aid system carries out need assessments only twice a year, which end up being several months out of date. It added that corruption and political distractions, including a new constitution, reduced the national capacity to respond, although it said the reaction of the Kenyan public to the crisis was "substantial."
— The situation was much worse in southern and central Somalia, where conflict and militancy prevented traditional drought responses and reduced the ability of aid groups to help.
One Kenyan economist said it would have been difficult to prevent the famine in south-central Somalia, which is mostly controlled by militants from al-Shabab, an insurgent group that has greatly limited what aid agencies can do in the region.
"I don't think the solution to famine is just sending money in good time," said economist James Shikwati. "It also needs policy changes. Look at Somalia. (Even) if you have all the money in your pocket and all the grain in your store, unless al-Shabab allows you to access their areas, then people there are still going to starve."
The report said many donors wanted to first see proof that there was a humanitarian catastrophe, and that caused a funding shortfall that delayed a large-scale response to the crisis by about six months.
Governments, donors, aid groups and the U.N. need to change their approach to such disasters to help a larger number of people during the next hunger crisis, the report said.
Ethiopia was able to minimize the effects of the drought because of the promotion of disaster risk management policy and practice, the report said.
"This contrasts with Somalia, where such work has been largely absent, due to access restrictions, a complex environment and the unwillingness of donors to invest," it said.
Now, there are clear signs of an impending hunger crisis in West Africa, said Justin Forsyth, head of Save the Children. The report said a food crisis in the West African region known as the Sahel is being driven by drought and high food prices. The report says agencies should put into practice there what has been learned in the Somalia crisis.
A recent Save the Children assessment in Niger shows families in the worst-hit areas are already struggling with around one-third less food, money and fuel than is necessary to survive.
Besides Niger, the other countries at risk are Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Mali and Chad, said Alun McDonald, regional spokesman for Oxfam.
Friday will mark six months since the U.N. declared famine in Somalia.
"The earlier you respond, the more you get for your money," McDonald said.
Trucking just over a gallon (5 liters) of water per day per person to 80,000 people in Ethiopia costs more than $3 million for five months, the report said, compared with $900,000 to prepare water sources in the same area for an oncoming drought.
"We've done a lot of water trucking. It's the last resort," McDonald said. "It's a very expensive and inefficient way of delivering water."
"It's much more cost-effective to invest early on" in things like dams, reservoirs, and boreholes, he said.
The report also said it costs three times as much to restock a herd in northern Kenya than to keep it alive through supplementary feeding.
"The world knows an emergency is coming but ignores it until confronted with TV pictures of desperately malnourished children," Forsyth said.
The World Food Program says that even though the worst of the crisis appears to be over, hundreds of thousands of people will still need food aid in the coming months to survive because their livestock have died and crops have not yet grown.
Earlier this week, food donated by Cargill, the Minnesota-based producer and marketer of food, agricultural, financial and industrial products, was delivered to needy communities in Kenya. Cargill donated 10,000 metric tons of rice to WFP USA to be distributed in the Horn of Africa.
The group said the donation — the largest ever food donation to WFP USA — would feed nearly 1 million people for a month.