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 97.

    91. PH73

    How much money have we poured in to Africa? How much difference has it made?
    Quite a lot of difference to those that survived famine due to being fed using our aid money.

  • rate this

    Comment number 96.

    Some of Africa's problems, and here think poverty and famine, come from a cocktail of the IMF and corporate involvement in the continent, which have underpinned dictatorship in the name of greed. Arguably Africa was never too truly develop, but to be a useful target for aid as a part of cynical foreign policies by govs of the developed world.

  • rate this

    Comment number 95.

    @Polly8122 There is a view that overpopulation is a problem. And that the peoples ought to do something with the independance they've had for some time.
    Just because you had a nice time on holiday in Rwanda doesn't mean we have to ignore the realities of wasted and ineffective aid.
    Fact: many African nations have strong economies but unsustainable population growth. Aid plays a supoprting role

  • rate this

    Comment number 94.

    If you always do what you have always done, then you always get what you've always got.
    Anyway there is alot of stability in many african countries. It is improving all the time. Even Mogadishu is thriving on the back of piracy, compared to the Black Hawk down days.

  • rate this

    Comment number 93.

    isnt it funny how one minute people bemoan our own "lazy benefit culture" and the next they say we need to do more for africa...oootumba walks 5miles to the well and back for frash water each day.solution-move the mud huts 5miles closer to the well instead of sitting there waiting for bono and a blue peter crew

  • rate this

    Comment number 92.

    So many comments refer to this being a long-standing problem. I agree, and I have always thought that prevention is better than cure. Education is vital, but changing the mind-set of a culture is harder than we think. Adding more babies just adds more lives at risk, and they need to be shown that this is tantamount to manslaughter. To suffer all your life is not being able to live. RIP x

  • rate this

    Comment number 91.

    How much money have we poured in to Africa? How much difference has it made? - None at all. Either the rich despots who run these countries take it all for themselves, or as soon as you install a fresh water system someone nicks it. Until these countries show that they are willing to really work to sort themselves out, then frankly we're throwing good money after bad.

  • Comment number 90.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 89.

    To 51.
    Human beings are not animals! We are more than that! Being kind is not a matter of 'interest'. It's the basis of being human. Try starving for a day and you probably would go yelling for food. Sterilizing does not solve the problem which is deep-rooted with geographical and political challenges. If only the UN or influential West could do more, things would not be this bad.

  • rate this

    Comment number 88.

    You don’t move to the Arctic Circle and build theme parks or sanctuaries for sick ponies. Why are families having 5 or more children in areas plagued with famine?

  • rate this

    Comment number 87.

    I am really sorry, but if we failed to heed early warnings, what about the people of this region themselves- how many babies? They must have known famine was coming and yet there is unfettered population growth. Sometimes the solution lies in your own hands. Don't have if you can't feed- and the same goes in all countries including the UK.

  • rate this

    Comment number 86.

    It's very sad, but it has to be said. Since the 1950's it is estimated the UK has given around £1 TRILLION in aid to the African continent. We have tried to educate them regarding contraception and yet nothing changes. Time to button up our wallets for good and let them get on with it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 85.

    What are these countries’ governments doing for their own people? I’m sick to the back teeth of having a begging bowl waved in front of me to contribute to countries where corruption is rife, their leaders well fed, but they seem to think the world owes them something. NO!

  • rate this

    Comment number 84.

    It's always Africa, isn't it. Anyone thought their own culture might be to blame, and be the thing that needs sorting?

  • rate this

    Comment number 83.

    If it bleeds it leads. There's view here that Africa consists of corrupt politicians and starving people. That all the media shows so that's all there is. 2 Facts:

    Rwanda - 800 000 people slaughtered in genocide 17 years ago.

    Rwanda - 60% but now one of the top ten fastest growing economies in the world. Aid played a supporting role.

    Which of these two facts did you know?

  • 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 81.

    We don't have the right answer. If the Western World was 'A-OK' it would not feel as bad about helping Africa. The whole world is in turmoil, so we begrudge our governments helping other nations when ours is in a shambles. I lived in Africa for over 30 years. They have no welfare state because they have no welfare. Poverty is their way of life and we should feel lucky our children are not dying

  • rate this

    Comment number 80.

    70 no its not callous
    the british have and will continue to give but lots of comments are right to question who gets the aid.
    year after year its the same and nothing changes.
    with money in short supply and more required abroad we have reached a tipping point and so less money will be donated.
    how much do other countries give?

  • rate this

    Comment number 79.

    "It's shocking" it says, But really, it isn't - a lot of us have known this story our entire lives. And while we're trained to believe 'giving' is the right thing to do, reliance on aid has led to slightly better conditions so they live slightly longer, have more kids and the non-existent resources are streched even further. We aren't helping as much as we think we are

  • rate this

    Comment number 78.

    Ooh yes, lets throw more money it. That always works. Just look at Hati. I'm just surprised this article doesn't somehow blame climate change.
    African countries have to learn to help themselves because otherwise the spiral of dictatorship and famine will always continue.


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