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East Africa: so was it all too late?

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Oxfam and Save the Children yesterday published a report – titled A Dangerous Delay – on the food crisis in east Africa. It says that thousands of needless deaths occurred and millions of extra pounds were spent because the international community failed to take decisive action on early warnings of a hunger crisis in east Africa.

The importance of preparing for disasters

The humanitarian aid that was provided saved many lives, but we agree that taking action earlier would have saved even more.

An International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies report on the drought in east Africa, published in late 2011, concluded that governments, donors and humanitarian organisations must work together on a long-term approach, addressing the chronic underlying issues. It advocated a focus on preventing future crises through intelligent investment in sustainable change.

Generally speaking, funds invested in preparedness are several times more effective in avoiding crisis than similar funds invested in response. However, until there is a crisis donors tend not to allocate substantial funds to an operation.

In the Horn of Africa, regular droughts are a fact of life. It’s a complex web of factors – including conflict, food and fuel prices, and poverty – that can combine to cause the delicately balanced environment to tip towards scenes of desperate hunger.

The accuracy of the early warning systems has developed considerably in recent years and their predictions for drought in east Africa in 2011 in late 2010 were mostly correct. However, the systems do not predict when other factors, such a conflict and high food prices, will combine to make a bad situation worse.

In east Africa, Red Cross and Red Crescent National Societies are always present. The Kenya Red Cross, for example, works longer term through a network of volunteers across the country who support agriculture, the rehabilitation of boreholes, and much more.

In June 2010, the British Red Cross donated £205,000 towards supporting the International Committee of the Red Cross’ work in Somalia. By April 2011, we had already donated over £500,000 to support drought, food insecurity and school feeding programmes in the region.

However it is hard to garner financial support in times when rains have fallen, crops are growing and livestock are multiplying – before the situation is a full blown crisis.This meant not enough was given before famine was declared, money which could have built people’s resilience and saved lives.

When, on 4 July 2011, the British Red Cross launched its East Africa Food Crisis Appeal, the situation was already so dire that in many cases emergency food aid was the only realistic option. But, while food aid undoubtedly saves lives, it doesn’t help build resilience, and can, in some cases, destabilise local markets and lock families into dependency.

So what is the solution?

There are no simple answers to the complex long term food crisis in east Africa, a disaster which has changed and evolved over time.

In areas of acute crisis and suffering food distributions or cash support are vital, we are unapologetic about saving lives through distributions of emergency food aid. But we also recognise that the broader crisis across east Africa is chronic and recurring, and needs a response which goes beyond food or cash relief.

This is why some of the funds raised by our appeal are also being used to help improve people’s resilience to future disasters. We are helping communities improve their livelihoods to better cope with chronic crises and reduce the risk of falling into a state of acute emergency. In each country, and indeed each community, the risks and therefore the required assistance will be different.

The complexity, fluidity and scale of the food crisis in east Africa means that no one agency, government or institution can provide the answer alone. International donors, humanitarian agencies, national governments and local communities must all work together.

The Red Cross strives to do its part to alleviate the suffering of the most poor and vulnerable by using our skills and expertise, as well as our network of volunteers –often from the very communities affected by the crisis – in the most effective way we can.