The Urban Scientist

The worst preventable disaster of recent times

Oxfam America knew and warned of a famine before it happened in the Horn of Africa — what went wrong?

October 25, 2011

The Horn of Africa is experiencing one of the world’s worst famines in over 60 years. It is the first official famine of the 21st century. Tens of thousands of people have died so far. It is happening right now and is probably the most pressing humanitarian issue of the day.

But these dire descriptions of the crisis, while true, disregard more pertinent questions. This was the message of Muthoni Muriu of Oxfam America, who spoke recently at New York University.

Now that the human cost of the drought-induced famine is clear and the “shock factor” has been exhausted, Muriu says that journalists need to ask different kinds of questions: Could the famine have been prevented? And if so, what lessons can be learned for the future?

Lack of rain may be the immediate cause, but it is only part of the food crisis. Semhar Araia, who works in the Horn of Africa for Oxfam, explains that for an area so chronically plagued by an unpredictable climate “droughts are inevitable, but famine is preventable.” Other charitable aid organisations such as the Canadian Hunger Foundation agree.

Oxfam began to worry about an impending disaster as far back as November 2010, when their early warning systems for rainwater, crop harvests, and cattle health showed a declining situation.

By December, Muriu says, “we knew things were worsening at a disturbing rate.” By the following May, adults in the region were down to one meal a day.

Despite all the signs of a looming crisis, there was no response. Media attention was minimal and the international community remained silent, according to Muriu.

What went so wrong? A large part of the problem is the political atmosphere of the region. Western countries are not able give aid until a state of emergency is declared. African governments are keen to avoid such a declaration for fear of harming international trade.

Muriu adds, “the media is not interested in the absence of a declaration” of a state of emergency.

Lack of media attention to the early stages of a food crisis means that the “international community’s response comes too late,” she says. And yet these precursor stages are important enough to compound the issue of a drought into a crisis of epic proportions.

According to the United Nations, since early September of 2011, another three million people have been pushed to the brink of starvation by unstable governments and rising food costs in Ethiopia, Somalia and other neighboring states.

To overcome the most damaging obstacle of reluctant African governments, Oxfam America hopes to convince them that it is a more economically sound policy to accept and correct the problem rather than sweep it under the rug.

About the Author

Benjamin Plackett

Benjamin Plackett is proud native of North Yorkshire, England and a graduate of Imperial College London with a B.Sc. honors degree in biology with a year in Europe. He loves writing about all things science, but has a particular penchant for health and also political stories. Check out his website and follow him on Twitter: @BenjPlackett


1 Comment

Atif says:

Bit late on replies tahnks Vic for some very valid points.On pirates: seems like the first ones also did it as of frustration that fish wasn’t there or turned up polluted in early 2000s (looking back since 1991, ships have been either over-fishing the Indian ocean in front of Somalia to feed NE Asia without being stopped by anyone OR dumping all kinds of waste barely away from the coast! Original pirates also had a socio-economic & anti-imperialist bend!); it has definitely turned into a globalized criminal endeavour..On clans, I think it is still a fundamental feature yes Hargeisa is doing better somewhat but it is also through clan dominance of the Isaak groups which rests on a semi-state, authoritarian structure but daily violence in Somaliland continues to be clan-driven.On Kenya entering the fray: whether planned (it was) or spur of the moment (dumb coordination going in at the start of a heavy rainy season!), the motive lies more with opportunism to advance its own buffer zone’ ambitions in the newly created Azania state (March 2011); the Kenyan problem is wider also including the increased perception of internal threat at Nairobi levels over its own Kenyan-Somali population & the more than 1M refugees (Dadaab has become the third biggest city in-country after Nairobi & Mombassa!) who will stay in-country for many more years to come. Agreed on the lack of coverage (of LRA as well, now mostly in CAR apparently) Fascinating Horn of Africa for anybody interested!

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