Sunday, 09 October 2011 09:49

Crisis in the Horn of Africa: Rethinking the humanitarian response


In an urgent response to famine in parts of Somalia and food insecurity throughout the Horn of Africa, UNICEF and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) this week convened an in-depth briefing on ending the crisis and averting similar catastrophes in the future.

With over 13 million people at risk in the countries of the Horn – including 4 million in Somalia, half of them children – the stakes could hardly be higher.

Held at the United Nations compound in Nairobi on Monday, the full-day seminar brought together an expert panel of 15 humanitarian aid practitioners and academics, along with an audience composed mainly of aid workers from the region. Participants expressed diverse, sometimes differing views about the current crisis, in which drought, conflict and rising food prices threaten lives, livelihoods and ways of life across the Horn of Africa.

But consensus emerged on at least one point: A sustainable approach to the crisis must incorporate long-term development needs, even as the humanitarian community acts quickly to prevent further suffering on the ground.

‘A day of learning’

“Today is a day of questioning, a day of rethinking, a day of learning,” said Elhadj As Sy, UNICEF’s Regional Director for Eastern and Southern Africa. Given the complex dynamics of the situation in the Horn of Africa, he added, “it’s important to understand the sensitivities around everything we do.”

Mr. As Sy also stressed that the affected populations – including traditional pastoralists and herders, local communities, refugees and internally displaced persons – should be fully involved in designing, implementing and evaluating programmatic solutions to the problems they face.

To provide a context for possible solutions, several panellists offered an overview of the region’s worrying food situation. They comprised the first of five in-depth panels moderated by FAO Senior Programme Officer Sue Lautze and UNICEF Research Director Gordon Alexander.

Outlook for food security

Felix Rembold of the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre  noted that prolonged drought, while devastating, is not the only cause of food insecurity in the Horn of Africa. Even aside from the impact of conflict and instability, another problem is the low yield from lands cultivated by the region’s pastoralists.

“What leads from drought to famine is a failure of agricultural development,” said Mr. Rembold. Increasing per capita crop yields, he suggested, is one way to cope with the frequent droughts that most climatologists see on the horizon in East Africa for years to come.

Tamara Nanitashvili of the Food Security and Nutrition Analysis Unit, and other panellists, cautioned that the famine in southern Somalia is likely to worsen through the end of this year. Even if short rains arrive as expected in the coming weeks, the experts agreed, they won’t be sufficient to mitigate the agricultural impact of two consecutive seasons with significantly below-average rainfall.

Viability of pastoralism

Against this dire backdrop, Abdullahi Khalif of the Famine Early Warning Systems Network said pastoralists need long-term support to reinforce their customary means of coping with arid and semi-arid environments. “Building pastoralism in the eastern Horn could be a way of building resilience,” he said.

The viability of pastoralism, and the myths and facts surrounding this age-old way of life, were central to many of the day’s discussions.

Ethiopian risk-management consultant Solomon Desta emphasized the importance of economic diversification – going beyond pastoralists’ traditional focus on livestock assets – to help shield them from climate shocks and other stressors. Yacob Aklilu of Tufts University concurred, urging a closer look at bolstering pastoralist resilience through improved trade and business practices and, in some cases, alternative livelihoods.

Simon Levine of the Overseas Development Institute (ODI)  took a slightly different stance. “Pastoralism developed as an adaptive strategy in an environment where the climate is unpredictable,” he said. As a result, Mr. Levine argued, traditional pastoralists may in fact be better-suited for survival than others in a future marked by climate change.

Causes and consequences

Beyond the question of pastoralism, several panellists pointed out that both the causes and the consequences of famine and food insecurity in the Horn of Africa are multi-faceted.

If famine persists even for a short time, said Analies Borrel of the Nutrition Council in Zimbabwe, it undermines the coping mechanisms of families and communities – resulting in disease outbreaks, family breakdown, psychological trauma and gender-based violence. In the long term, she said, famine can lead to lost national productivity and missed opportunities for development.

Then there is the complicating factor of conflict.

“Widespread drought is bad enough,” said Simon Narbeth of the UK Department for International Development. “But conflict restricts the movement of livestock and people, trade and access to markets, the provision of humanitarian resources and, importantly, the flow of social resources.”

In southern Somalia, a combination of conflict and drought is destroying the livelihoods of households, villages and clans. How to halt and reverse this erosion of assets, which is making Somali children and families ever more vulnerable? “End the conflict,” said Mr. Narbeth. “It sounds obvious, but it has to be said again and again.”

Social and political dynamics

While stability is surely a prerequisite for recovery and resilience in Somalia – as well as Kenya, Ethiopia and Djibouti, where a total of more than 860,000 refugees have fled – the Somali conflict doesn’t lend itself to easy answers. Yesterday’s suicide bombing in Mogadishu, which killed dozens of civilians, many of them children, is the latest reminder of the serious security concerns throughout Somalia.

At the seminar, Rashid Abdi of the International Crisis Group said “a huge underclass of agro-pastoralists” – already a marginalized group – are being hit hardest by the crisis in Somalia’s southern and central zone, where the conflict has hindered humanitarian access.

Roland Marchal of the Paris-based National Centre for Scientific Research expressed cautious hope that the impetus behind the Arab Spring in the Middle East and North Africa would spread “positive new thinking” to Somalia. By fostering greater consciousness of political rights, he said, this development could nurture a state-building project rooted in Somalis’ basic needs.

Such a movement would likely have strong religious undercurrents, and it might develop in ways that challenge Western assumptions and values, Mr. Marchal warned. Still, some degree of compromise will be needed to alter the status quo, he said, adding: “There is no end to that conflict but a political end.”

Lessons learned

The seminar’s final panel discussion looked at lessons learned from past crisis interventions in the Horn of Africa, with an eye toward formulating better answers to the present emergency.

Mr. Levine of ODI offered a blunt assessment of the historical record. “We’ve failed,” he said, citing recurrent crises in Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia and elsewhere over several decades as evidence that the aid response in the Horn has been too reactive and non-strategic. While early warning systems for food insecurity have improved, he declared, it’s still too difficult to “connect the dots” due to a lack of coordination among aid agencies.

For the panellists, this gap between early warning and timely action raised questions about not only accountability in the existing aid structure, but also its adaptability to protracted crises.

Towards a more effective response

The key to greater effectiveness, according to many speakers at the seminar, is to work across agencies and sectors – blurring the lines between humanitarian aid, which focuses on immediate needs, and development, which takes a longer view. To prevent history from repeating itself, “the whole pattern of development needs to move with the circumstances,” said Mr. Levine.

“A drought is not like a tsunami,” noted Mike Wakesa, a Nairobi-based development consultant. “It creeps up slowly and the worst effects come in much later.” Preventing and managing drought-related food insecurity, therefore, requires a lengthy commitment that not only saves lives but sows the seeds of recovery.

In any case, as François Grünewald of the Groupe URD research institute highlighted, preventive action is far less costly than emergency intervention after the fact; it also contributes much more to building resilience in vulnerable communities.

“Somalis know resilience,” added Luca Alinovi, FAO’s officer-in-charge for Somalia. “They know very well what they need. It’s a question of engaging with them and working to scale.”

As the seminar wrapped up, Ms. Lautze of FAO concluded: “This analysis didn’t take long. Doing something about it will be incredibly challenging.” Without a doubt, the exchange that began in Nairobi this week will continue.

Source: UNICEF

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