Early warnings that could prevent food shortages from developing into famines are not triggering early action among humanitarian agencies or donor governments, resulting in thousands of avoidable deaths, says a new Chatham House report. Instead, the humanitarian system tends to mobilize only once a crisis hits, when it is by definition too late to prevent an emergency.

Modern early warning systems provide a crucial window of opportunity during which the humanitarian system can intervene to avert disaster and prevent the downward spiral into destitution and starvation that can follow from drought. This opportunity is being wasted, according to the report, launched on the first anniversary of the 2011 Somalia famine declaration.

The report author, Rob Bailey, says, 'Organizations need to look carefully at how they can reward decision-makers for appropriate early action and penalize inappropriate delay. Unless the humanitarian system gets to grips with the fundamental constraints of perverse incentives and adverse politics, more avoidable catastrophes are inevitable.'

Famine Early Warning and Early Action: The Cost of Delay, says the roots of this delay lie in failures of decision-making, which needs to be divorced from political agendas and based on objective analyses of the risks a potential crisis presents to vulnerable populations.

However, these are not failures of individuals: lateness is hardwired into the humanitarian system by a pervasive lack of accountability, which means that decisions can be passed around and lost within complex bureaucracies. The inertia is often reinforced by adverse politics in donor capitals, which place foreign policy and domestic considerations above humanitarian needs.

The human costs of this delay are immense. The Somalia famine, which could have been avoided had early warnings been heeded, killed tens of thousands of people, mostly children. Since 1980, over half a billion people have died in drought-related food crises. Currently, 18 million people in the Sahel region of West Africa are affected by a food crisis predicted last year.

Notes to Editors

Read Famine Early Warning and Early Action: The Cost of Delay

The author [directory 176397] is Senior Research Fellow, Energy, Environment and Resources, Chatham House.

He is available for interview. Email [staff 176397] or call +44 (0) 7786 363 009.