The food crisis gripping East Africa escalated this week when the UN declared a famine in two regions of Somalia. With the 'hunger gap' expected to last until October, there is a real risk that without an adequate response the situation in the region will continue to deteriorate.
Nobody can say they were not warned. The first alarm came in August 2010 when the drought was forecast by the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET). Once it became clear that the prediction was correct (in November 2010) FEWS NET started issuing regular alerts of increasing urgency. But as is nearly always the case with slow-onset disasters, early warning did not lead to early action. At the time of writing, UN appeals are less than half funded and the response is struggling to catch-up to the scale of the disaster.
The simplistic explanation for this shortfall is that donors are reluctant to dip into their pockets until international media and NGOs broadcast images of starving people into living rooms. But this offers little in the way of solutions.
Early warnings, which are by their nature uncertain, must be quickly followed by recommended steps with no-regret options, making it easier for decision-makers to take early action and be held to account. Innovative mechanisms to mobilise resources automatically once warning systems are triggered should be explored - for example a CAT bond or insurance mechanism which pays out when a drought happens. Scaling-up the UN Central Emergency Response Fund, through a system of annual upfront assessed contributions, could also provide greater capacity early on. But its current annual budget of $ 500 million could meet only half the needs of the East Africa crisis, let alone an entire year's emergencies.
Politicisation of Aid
Another crucial obstacle to an early response has been the politicisation of humanitarian aid in Somalia. Al Shabaab, an Islamist group classified as a terrorist organisation by the US, controls large parts of southern Somalia including the areas where famine has now been declared. Al Shabaab banned international agencies from working in these areas, preventing them from building capacity in the run-up to the crisis, and has only reversed this policy in recent days.
The world's largest food aid donor - the US - has compounded the difficulty by taking the line that agencies should not operate where there was a chance that some aid could be diverted to support Shabaab. This has prevented US support for relief in areas of south central Somalia.
Both parties bear responsibility for treating emergency aid as a political tool. The US already suffers from a poor reputation in Somalia and making it harder to deliver aid to some of the worst affected areas will not have helped. Likewise there is evidence that Shabaab is suffering for its intransigence.
Early Warnings Should Mean Early Action
Now that famine has been declared, the US has begun to adjust its position, and humanitarian agencies hope that the f-word will jolt donors into action. But the crisis, forecast a year ago, should never have been allowed to get this bad. Inevitably, the war in Somalia, and the resulting displacement and disruption, would always have made responding to the drought difficult. But earlier action, and respect for the basic humanitarian principle that aid should not be treated as a political tool would have meant much more could be done before it got so bad.