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Simon Levine

Simon Levine believes that the current famine in the Horn of Africa was preventable (© ODI)
Simon Levine believes that the current famine in the Horn of Africa was preventable

Famine is not a natural disaster - it's our fault

Simon Levine, research fellow at the Overseas Development Institute, believes passionately that the current famine in the Horn of Africa was preventable. To prevent famine, he argues that pro-pastoralist policies and reform of the humanitarian system is required. Until these are in place, Levine believes that drought will cost the lives of people and livestock at frequent intervals.

The famine in the Horn of Africa is being seen as an inevitable consequence of drought, "the worst for 60 years". But this famine was almost entirely preventable, and presenting it as a natural disaster doesn't help; nor does our insistence on waiting for a major crisis before responding. Even though lessons about how to prevent famines have been documented time and time again, we don't learn.

The conflict in Somalia is obviously a contributing factor, but humanitarian crises have happened in the region quite regularly, even if they haven't quite crossed the threshold into famine. To stop the tragic pattern of crises in Africa's dry areas, two things need to happen: the international community needs to support pro-pastoralist policies, and we have to make our humanitarian system effective and accountable. The first requires a greater understanding of nomadic livestock rearing systems and their value, and seeing pastoralism as a solution, not as a problem.

People also look for technical fixes, but the problem is much deeper and more political. For example, it's common for government offices or NGOs to have projects like reseeding degraded rangelands. But these organisations don't understand why the rangelands are degraded and overgrazed, which is to do with mobility. Developing an overall strategy for supporting pastoral systems is essential before looking at specific technical fixes.

Dryland people - restricted and marginalised

Pro-pastoralist policies should recognise that nothing else works as well as pastoralism in dryland areas. Policymakers and donors need to understand how pastoralists move, why and when, and how we can intervene to make that better. Ensuring mobility of pastoralists within the country is paramount; cross-border mobility is highly desirable, but much more difficult to achieve. Education is another key area, enabling school leavers from pastoralist communities to find jobs, earn money and send it home. But pastoralists also suffer from enormous political marginalisation. The minister for Uganda's rangeland areas recently described pastoralism as a 'social evil', and this view is sadly not untypical.

International donors need to support programmes which demonstrate a respect for mobility and pastoral land rights. This, however, demands 'joined-up' thinking. For example, a donor may have one budget supporting pastoralists and another to improve access to water. If the water budget is used to enable settlement in grazing lands, that may improve access to water, but deny access to the grazing reserves pastoralists depend on.

Taking responsibility, and being accountable

Our humanitarian aid system also needs reforming. For example, early warning systems provide warnings, but they don't trigger early action. Bulletins warning drought or impending famine may be clear, but there is no-one with the overarching responsibility for the humanitarian response needed. National governments are ultimately responsible for the welfare of their people, but in most cases they are simply not doing enough to ensure an adequate humanitarian response to protect the lives and livelihoods of their citizens.

The humanitarian system is also primed to respond to the wrong signals. At the moment, our response is like a fire alarm which goes off when the temperature reaches 200 degrees. But our alarms need to go off at the first sign of smoke, so that we can make the necessary decisions. We have the information needed to predict when there will be problems: we know what crops are coming in which months, depending on which rains, and we know what percentage these contribute to people's income and diet. We also know the consequences if rains fail. If we decide we want to set up a malnutrition centre, for example, we have to start setting this up three months before it is needed so it's ready in time. It's so obvious, but we don't do it.

Late response wastes lives and money

Donors might justify waiting to see if a crisis really will materialise, to ensure best use of limited funds, but this is false logic. Firstly, the loss of people's assets during these situations is enormous: in terms of lost livestock, hundreds of thousands of dollars is wasted each day. Secondly, there are significant cost-benefits to acting early. Treatment for an acutely malnourished child costs hundreds of pounds. Feeding a child to prevent malnutrition costs just a few pounds, and keeping their goats alive, as a source of milk and income, often costs even less.

Thirdly, much that is delivered as humanitarian aid during times of crisis is actually needed anyway. Animal health services and vaccination of children against diseases like measles are basic services that governments should be providing, irrespective of whether there is an emergency. And finally, having a plan, identifying supplies of food in advance, and negotiating at a local level so that things can be implemented quickly if and when the time comes, are all actions that cost very little but improve emergency responses.

Currently, the attitude of responsibility and accountability doesn't exist. At the end of the day, no one is responsible. No one is going to lose their job over this famine. So how do you get system accountability when you have got multiple organisations with different mandates, different priorities, responding to different political constituencies? It's very hard, but until we can sort that problem out, it's going to be 'Here we go again' every three years.

Date published: August 2011


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Logical and rational advice/ research by Simon and many othe... (posted by: Elizabeth Waithanji)


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