For months aid agencies, governments and experts have been warning of the threat of a drought in the Horn of Africa. Now with millions affected, relief agencies and aid departments are attempting to raise money and provide assistance on the ground. With warning systems apparently failing, Think Africa Press asks five experts what are the main drivers of food insecurity in the Horn of Africa, and what can be done to bring about greater food security in the region?
Jonathan Bhalla, Research Manager, Africa Research Institute:
The chronic shortage of food in the Horn of Africa – triggered by prolonged drought – is not a sudden eruption. Nor is it the first time this has happened. The current food crisis, most severe in northern Kenya, south-eastern Ethiopia, southern Somalia and Djibouti, has been looming for close to a year. The UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) first raised alarm bells in October 2010, and have continued to do so every month since. Aid agencies and non-governmental organisations stationed in the region have been underlining the gravity of the present emergency since the beginning of the year. Sophisticated early warning systems, designed to foresee and avert famine have been in place for years, but they have not changed the way the international community responds to chronic food shortages in Africa. The international response remains overwhelmingly reactive, rather than pre-emptive. The system only responds when the signs of parched land, dying animals and starving children are clear for us all to see.
Low rainfall, and drought, underpin the current state of emergency in the Horn. Rains have failed over the past two seasons in the region. In some places, rain has not fallen for close to a year. But drought only tells part of the story. Adverse weather conditions – epitomised by prolonged dry spells – have been part of the climate cycle of this region for centuries. Pastoralism, the dominant livelihood in the region, has evolved over years and adapted to the reality that rains persistently fail. The difference this time is that pastoralists cannot reach areas where rain has fallen because it is too dangerous. Fighting in Somalia, and the Ogaden region of Ethiopia, has intensified in recent months. A surge in cattle raiding between rival nomadic groups have left dozens dead. These factors have stunted migration patterns and prevented pastoralists from reaching suitable grazing lands, and pasture. Simon Levine at ODI sums the causes in more detail here.
Soaring food prices – although not a direct cause – have added to people’s woes. In Somalia, the cost of Sorghum is reportedly 240% higher than a year ago. In Kenya, the price of Maize, that country's staple crop, has tripled in places since January, despite a bumper harvest in October 2010 which saw the country produce 36 million bags of maize. Hoarding of grain by opportunistic traders holding out for higher prices has aggravated price volatility in Kenya. But soaring inflation and the plummet in value of the Kenyan shilling in recent months have not helped matters.
The international community, and African governments, must respond to faster and better to warnings of impending famine. This means responding before pictures of malnourished children flood our TV screens and newspapers. In terms of the humanitarian response, donors and aid agencies must prioritize protecting economic livelihoods, as well as feeding the hungry and vaccinating the sick. Livestock are the backbone of the economy in Horn. In recent months, prices for livestock have crashed, and markets are teetering on collapse. When the rains return in September, the large proportions of people’s assets will be dead. In the short term, animals must be fed and prevented from dying. This, however, may be too late. In the long-term, governments and donors must support the pastoralist economy by safeguarding migration routes and access to pasture, and building and rehabilitating bore holes, for example. Strategies that support economic livelihoods will save far more lives in the long-term, and potentially negate the need for routine emergency appeals every three to four years.
Harry Verhoeven, Doctoral Researcher, Oxford University:
Hunger in the Horn of Africa is primarily the result of endemic conflict, bad economic policies and climatic changes. It is difficult to attribute the recent scorching drought to the latter -climate change science is not at a point yet where we can actually link individual shifts/disasters to the overall trend- but there can be no doubt that the water cycle across East and Central Africa is being altered because of what is happening to our climate and that this is impacting negatively on the livelihoods of millions of farmers and pastoralists across the region. For people already marginalised in political-economic terms, such droughts often represent the final push in a complex chain of impoverishment and marginalisation, occasionally even the last stage of a drawn-out process of starvation. We know from IPCC models that the Horn of Africa is one of the regions in the world most severely affected by climatic changes, and worse is to come. This threat to people's livelihoods is here to stay.
The question is then how people can adapt to these undeniable changes on the ground - water availability, quality of grazing land, to name but a few. A key determinant of this is economic policy, yet in many countries governments continue to see their rural populations - particularly in the peripheral regions - as a source of trouble and unruliness, rather than as economic actors and full citizens in their own right. Rural areas continue to suffer from underinvestment and neglect and policies continue to be guided not by a genuine desire to bring about the agricultural revolutions Africa needs, but by overriding political concerns. Low productivity remains the central problem of agriculture in the Horn of Africa - more yield per acre is essential if processes of population growth and urbanisation are to be managed and adaptation to climate change is to prove relatively sustainable - but most governments in the region continue to fail to provide either the support or the incentives for productivity to soar. Investments in research in ways to raise yields or skills training for farmers are virtually absent; rural infrastructure - roads, efficient irrigation systems, etc- remains woefully inadequate; long-term market development and international marketing strategies are faltering; politicised schemes are allowed to survive and consume government resources while more promising avenues for public and private investment are deliberately neglected. The list goes on.
Finally, conflict is another driver of food insecurity. Somalia and South Sudan (e.g. Jonglei State) are undoubtedly the best examples of this: there is a direct link between violent clashes and the food insecurity situation in particular regions. Physical insecurity shortens the growing season, or means cultivators do not plant for the next season at all, fearing to lose their crops, or lives, to militiamen. Access to markets is difficult, expensive or impossible, pushing prices up for consumers and meaning that producers cannot sell their produce. Conflict damages the infrastructure, and makes relief efforts in deeply food insecure zones even harder. Migration routes for pastoralists can be blocked due to insecurity, which can in turn generate new conflict and/or growing difficulties for herds to access grazing pastures, with knock on effects on the market systems these cattle and camels are part of. Conflict also makes good governance harder as well as gobbling up government revenues, that could be more productively spent on economic development initiatives.
Christopher Cramer, Professor, Political Economy of Development, SOAS:
Food insecurity in the Horn of Africa is driven by a variety of factors but three in particular interact to present a major challenge to policy makers and others. First, recent research associated with the US Geological Survey and published in Climate Dynamics in 2011 contradicts earlier projections by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and accounts for an increased exposure to drought, over the past 20 years, from the rising temperature of the Indian Ocean and links this to global warming. Second, as ever, food insecurity is influenced by political actions and conflicts, for example in parts of Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia and elsewhere. Third, food security and insecurity are bound up with economic policies. Food insecurities always stir a dream of national self-sufficiency in food crop production but - especially given international relative prices, the availability of cheaply produced (or highly-subsidised) food internationally, and the requirements of macro-economic balances and job creation for poor people, pursuing food crop self-sufficiency can actively undermine effective food security strategies. To improve macroeconomic prospects, to generate increasing numbers of jobs (and hopefully over time better jobs) for poor people, to increase the ability to cover the costs of food imports, and to reduce aid dependency, the challenge for governments in the Horn of Africa, as in many other areas, is to invest and stimulate investment in enhanced productive capabilities in export-oriented agriculture. But there is also a false dichotomy between cash cropping for export and food crop growing for domestic consumption. Often the investments that promote export agriculture can also help stimulate more, and more productive, food crop cultivation, in areas where this is agro-climatically possible. Though the risks from uncertain climatic conditions are real and severe, and though international support is hugely important, governments and societies will have to prioritise agro-export production where possible (of coffee, tea, livestock, gum arabic, flowers, horticulture, etc), to promote linkages to food crop cultivation. But the fundamental challenge will often be to generate sufficiently binding political settlements that protect against the use of food insecurity as an instrument of control and exclusion.
Daniel Maxwell, Research Director, Feinstein International Center, Friedman School of Nutrition, Tufts University:
In the short term, this crisis is driven by the failure of the long rains in April-May 2011, including some of the lowest rainfall figures seen for half a century, at least in some areas of Somalia. But this drought is overlain on a number of factors: First is the on-going conflict in Somalia, and the polarization of that conflict that has turned what was once basically localized conflict between clans over control of resources into a proxy for the global war on terrorism, with aid no longer reaching parts of the country controlled by al-Shabab for much of 2010, and with restricted ability to monitor. Second, all countries in the region have been affected by high prices of food commodities in the short term. In the longer term, higher food prices may stimulate greater production, but in the short term, higher prices mainly affect consumers and importers. Third, there has long been an underlying livelihoods crisis – particularly in the pastoral areas of the Greater Horn, but also in some of the more marginal, rain-fed agriculture areas as well. This is largely the result of long-term distortions in markets, policies, a general focus on higher-potential areas in terms of development investments, and is exacerbated by environmental degradation. Finally, although the causal factors are hotly debated, global climate change has clearly had a major impact on livelihoods and agricultural production – whereas droughts used to occur on a 10-15 year cycle, the frequency seems to have greatly increased since the 1990s, making for significantly shorter "recovery" periods between droughts.
In terms of what can be done, or is being done: First, there is clearly a need for humanitarian assistance in the short term. While in the past, this has been almost taken for granted, this year is going to be very different, with prices of basic foodstuffs very high, and with budget-cutting an urgent priority in most donor countries. For example, the proposed budget for humanitarian food assistance in Congress is only about half of what it was last year (when there was not a major crisis, and food prices were significantly lower). If there is a major emergency or famine, supplemental budgets might be approved, but that is likely to be after there is already significant human damage done. Second, the underlying livelihoods crisis and threats to food security have to be dealt with in a much more systematic manner, including social protection programs for the most vulnerable groups even in years when there is not a major humanitarian crisis, and greater emphasis on resilience and reduction of risk. The Productive Safety Net Programme in Ethiopia is the best example of the former; disaster risk reduction programming is taking off across the region, mostly on a smaller scale. But it should be noted that much of this activity is still donor-supported (and hence subject to the same budget-cutting fervor as humanitarian assistance), and in several countries – most notably, of course, Somalia – social protection programs are simply not feasible until there is a more stable political contract in place. Lastly, of course, greater investment is needed in agricultural development. This issue is finally gaining some traction, both with national governments and donors, but in terms of addressing rural livelihoods, it will tend to target the highest potential areas first, since that is where the gains in productivity are likely to be highest. Hence, special efforts are needed on the more marginal areas.
Randolph Kent, Director, Humanitarian Futures Programme, King's College, London:
This humanitarian hazard was predictable in so many ways and I ask myself why aren’t we getting better at anticipating such events and preparing well in advance, to find ways of saving lives. As someone who has seen the full horrors of the famine of 1984 I wonder what really has changed? Technologically we are more proficient. In terms of experience, all of us have seen at least four major drought periods since 1984. Literally billions have been invested in East Africa in food security and monitoring systems. But time and again it still goes wrong.
We are just not using the mechanisms we have available, in a coherent and strategic way – market mechanisms to control the price of food commodities, identifying alternative livelihoods, using incentives for the relocation of communities. There’s just no coherent regional strategy.
It’s not good enough to say there are so many complexities in dealing with so many governments, international NGOs, regional agencies and organisations, that it’s hard to take a strategic long-term view. We have an abiding moral obligation to millions of highly vulnerable people to get the dialogue going years ahead of such events - between governments, scientists and humanitarian organisations to find ways of mitigating life-threatening events. But what do we see right now...Western governments pouring millions in aid into the region...it’s just too late.
However, perhaps we can be hopeful that the UK government’s commitment to more anticipatory analysis - as outlined in the Humanitarian Emergency Response Review (HERR) which was commissioned by the department for international development, DFID – will begin to push towards that end – a regional strategy which is coherent and achievable.”