As famine looms over horn of Africa, calls for help fall on deaf ears

A man stands next to the carcass of a dead camel on a farm near drought-stricken Guricade village in Somalia, on 19 January 2022. (Credit:FAO/Arete/Ismail Taxta)

As famine threatens to return to the horn of Africa, UN agencies and humanitarian organisations are mobilising to avert a catastrophe, but have so far failed to get attention from donors.

Since the beginning of the year, appeals have been rolled out one after the other to keep some 80 million people in the horn of Africa from tipping over the edge of hunger. UN agencies like the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Food Programme (WFP) have been pleading with donors for millions of dollars in funds to little avail.

Millions at brink of hunger

Somalia, Ethiopia, Djibouti and Kenya are facing their worst drought in recent history as four consecutive years of insufficient rain cause crops to fail and leave livestock without food or water. Internal tensions in the region have also been heightened by the drought as people fight over scarce water resources.

The war in Ukraine has deepened the crisis in the region, where the countries import up to 90 per cent of their wheat from Ukraine and Russia. A deal to allow grain exports out of the Black Sea to resume has eased some of the pressure on markets but has yet to have a visible impact in Africa.

Over 900,000 people in Somalia have flocked to internal displacement camps seeking aid, according to the FAO. A little over 10 years after the 2011 famine took the lives of 250,000 people in the country, around 200,000 people are again teetering on the brink of starvation.

Calls fall on deaf ears

With a fifth rainy season now projected to fail, organisations fearing the worst are scrambling to turn the situation around. But the response from donors so far has been far off the mark. The FAO, which had launched an appeal for $219 million to stave off a crisis in the region, had only gathered $47 million by the end of June.

Director of FAO’s office of emergency and resilience Rein Paulsen said in a press release that less than half of the agency’s response plan to avoid a catastrophe in Somalia, where at least eight areas could see famine by September, was funded.

Asking for $73 million for Ethiopia, WFP’s representative and country director for Ethiopia, Claude Jibidar, said on Tuesday that “three quarters of a million refugees will be left with nothing to eat in just a matter of weeks unless we receive funding immediately”.

The World Health Organization (WHO) asked for another $123.7 million to help malnourished children and address the increased risk of disease outbreaks as people are forced to choose between food and a doctor. “If nothing is done, millions will die,” Dr Ibrahima Soce Fall, WHO assistant director general for emergencies response, told reporters in Geneva.

Crises in the making

While the war in Ukraine and the hike in food and fuel prices have aggravated the situation, organisations have been warning of a food crisis in the horn of Africa for years. They have however failed to get the attention of donors.

“We have urgent problems with funding and adequate attention, given the scale of the crisis,” admitted Paulsen. Food rations for refugees in Ethiopia have been cut year after year, by 16 per cent in 2015 to 50 per cent in 2022, according to the UN.

Getachew Ta’a Woyessa, secretary general of the Ethiopian Red Cross Society, told Geneva Solutions in June that an appeal launched by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) had only collected one tenth of the funds.

“This is pathetic,” he said, frustrated by the lack of response.“The humanitarian imperative, as it stands today in Ethiopia, is massive, but our capacity to respond is very, very limited.”

Read also: Norwegian Refugee Council chief: attention on Ukraine war reveals ‘discrimination’ against African crises

Mid July, the US promised $1.18bn to address the hunger crisis in the horn of Africa. Secretary of state Antony Blinken is currently in Africa to show that the region remains a priority. But the attention seems to be more driven by an effort to keep China’s and Russia’s growing influence in check rather than by the humanitarian crisis.

“It’s an issue that has been haunting the global aid system for a while,” Gilles Carbonnier, vice president of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and professor of development economics at the Graduate Institute, told Geneva Solutions.

“We have evermore sophisticated early warning systems, and we are able to anticipate crises in the making, to try to intervene and prevent them from occurring.”

As the number of parallel crises grows, from Afghanistan last year to Ukraine this year, “there is a lack of political attention on forerunner signals”, said Carbonnier.

Looking for alternatives

Organisations have to see their predictions unfold before their eyes before they have the means to act. Tired of playing catch up, organisations have started to look for alternative ways to attract funds. The ICRC launched three years ago its humanitarian impact bonds, an initiative to blend money from private investors and public donors to support their programmes.

In Goma, in western Democratic Republic of Congo, the humanitarian organisation is working with the municipality, private water providers, development banks and several country donors, including the Swiss and the Swedish, to build water infrastructure in the conflict stricken city, where population is projected to grow by 500,000 people in a couple of years.

“This will make the urban population of Goma more resilient because it will reduce water losses, it will increase and improve sanitation and it will also be able to withstand any further shocks,” said Carbonnier.

Carbonnier says that innovative investment projects such as this one could help improve resilience in other parts of Africa, for example to improve rainwater harvesting and irrigation systems, or to build silos for grain keeping.

“These measures will not be sufficient to avert a crisis of the size of what we see today in Somalia, but it would really strengthen the capabilities of local responders and local actors to withstand a number of shocks and try to adapt to more difficult weather conditions,” he said.

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