4 May 2012
Rob Bailey

Rob Bailey

Research Director, Energy, Environment and Resources, Chatham House


Significant improvements in the quality and timeliness of famine early warning systems have not been matched by comparable improvements in the responsiveness of governments and the international community. As a result, the opportunity to protect more lives and livelihoods is lost. 

The most recent example of this was the 2011 Horn of Africa food crisis, and in particular the famine in Somalia. Early warnings increased in frequency and urgency over the course of a year until famine was eventually declared in July. It was only at that point when donors and agencies fully mobilized.

Last month, Chatham House held an expert workshop as part of the research project Translating Early Warning into Early Action. The workshop identified multiple barriers relating to the ways in which early warning information is communicated and interpreted; the incentives and accountability frameworks under which decision-makers operate; the limitations of the aid architecture; and the challenges of organizing and coordinating effectively across the international humanitarian system and its plethora of agencies and agendas. A full report of the workshop is available, but the focus here is on three key outcomes.

A new Paradigm is Needed

The international system is not set-up to deliver early action, which falls between the cracks of long-term development on the one hand and emergency response on the other. This split exists at all levels. Aid workers specialize in either humanitarian or development work, and struggle to move out of their silos. Beyond a bit of dabbling here and there, it’s the same story for agencies (think World Food Program versus Food and Agriculture Organization). And these divisions are perpetuated by an aid architecture that is similarly bifurcated, with humanitarian funding only being available after an emergency is declared. There are exceptions to this of course, but the overall picture is a fair one.

As a result, when early warnings trigger, humanitarians are hamstrung by a lack of tools (they specialize in response not prevention) and a lack of funds. Meanwhile development actors, who are often better equipped to undertake the types of resilience-building interventions needed, do not see it as their job and probably lack sufficiently flexible funding to adapt their programs anyway.

A new paradigm is needed, that moves out of silos towards integrated programming focused on building resilience and managing risk. Ultimately, the objective must be long-term programs that respond continually to early warning information, flexing between development, disaster risk reduction, early action and emergency interventions according to needs. 

This will require major changes in organizational structures, funding architectures, and ways of working. It will not happen without strong and concerted leadership from politicians in donor and national governments and leaders within the UN system and international NGOs. 

There are encouraging signs that things are starting to shift. The high-level informal grouping of Political Champions for Disaster Resilience held its first meeting last month. The UN Secretary General’s current five-year action agenda prioritizes resilience, and numerous donors and agencies are developing resilience-based strategies. But there is a long way to go, so this momentum must be sustained if the systemic transformation required is to be realized.

Long-term commitments to which governments and agencies can be held accountable offer a means to do so; upcoming opportunities include the tenth anniversary of the Good Humanitarian Donorship Principles, and the setting of new international commitments to succeed the Hyogo Framework for Action and the Millennium Development Goals.

Politics Trumps Everything Else

Technocratic solutions – like improving early warning information, redesigning decision-making, integrating programming, tinkering with incentive structures and reforming funding – are important but can only get us so far. Early action depends upon the will of governments, in affected countries and donor countries. Politics is the limiting factor. 

Donor governments consider the consequences of a particular crisis for their own agendas in deciding if and when to respond, and with how much money. Their interests may be served by preventing a crisis, if for example stability within the country concerned is valuable. Alternatively, they may prioritize other strategic imperatives over humanitarian concerns – for example, for a number of Western donors last year, counter-terrorism, or more specifically preventing humanitarian assistance from falling into the hands of the Islamist militia Al-Shabaab, was a greater priority in Somalia than preventing famine.

Governments in affected countries may also be slow to respond to early warnings for various reasons. They may choose to deny a problem, for fear of tarnishing the image they wish to project to the international community. Or they may be less concerned about crises occurring within politically marginalised communities.

Addressing the politics of early action is particularly challenging, as the NGOs and UN agencies best placed to challenge obstructive political agendas are themselves compromised – they are funded by donor governments and depend upon affected country governments for humanitarian access. Approaches to insulate decision-making from political agendas should be explored, but these will inevitably be resisted by governments that would lose power in a depoliticized process. In the meantime, agencies and NGOs must get smarter in their advocacy, building political analysis into their planning and working out how to build coalitions for action and challenge obstructive governments through new channels and approaches.

Are We Learning from Our Mistakes?

The failure to prevent famine in Somalia in 2011 was rightly criticized. As a result, donors and agencies are keen to demonstrate that they have learned from their mistakes, and have undertaken considerable efforts to mobilize resources and raise awareness about the current situation in the Sahel, where poor harvests have left the region facing food shortages. A number of NGOs have launched appeals to fund early action, whilst a meeting in February of heads of UN agencies, donors and government representatives called for coordinated action to prevent an emergency. This is welcome, and indicates a heightened awareness of the need for earlier action among senior decision-makers. 

But questions remain as to whether the emphasis is right. Whilst there is no doubt that the situation in parts of the Sahel is serious, there is not a consensus among early warnings providers on how bad things could get. Meanwhile early warnings of poor March-May rains in the Horn of Africa, where vulnerability remains extreme following last year’s emergency, have received comparatively little attention from donors, agencies or the media. 

The clear wish to avert a disaster in the Sahel is to be commended, however the fact that agencies, donors and early warnings providers are struggling to reach consensus on the gravity of the situation indicates that there is still work to do. Meanwhile the risk that the current focus on the Sahel is marginalizing the ongoing crisis in the Horn is real.

Further Resources

Translating Early Warning into Early Action
Workshop Summary, April 2012

Project Translating Early Warning into Early Action >>