Drought in Africa — How the system to fund humanitarian aid is still hardwired to fail

Guest post from Debbie Hillier, Oxfam Humanitarian Policy Adviser

DebbieHillier

Nearly 11 million people across Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya are facing alarming levels of food insecurity. In Somalia, deaths as a result of drought have already been recorded, and as its next rains are forecast to be poor, famine is a real possibility. But why are we facing the threat of famine yet again in Somalia?

Severe hunger and famine do not arrive suddenly or unexpectedly. In 2017, as always, they have been months in the making. But the deaths already seen from hunger and associated disease in Somalia have not been prevented, and the threat of famine has not been averted, because as we’ve learnt so often before, humanitarian aid only arrives at speed and scale when there is massive visible suffering.

That’s what happened in Somalia in 2011. The money rolled in only after famine was declared. By then, for many, it was already too late.

Hillier fig 1

Numbers of people needing assistance in Somalia and cumulative appeal funding. Red lines represent FEWS NET and FSNAU special early warning products

We know all too well that early response to drought saves lives — and is much cheaper. In October 2015, it was estimated that a late response to the El Niño drought in Ethiopia would cost $1.7bn whereas an early response would cost only $720m. Altogether around the world, the same author, Courtenay Cabot Venton, estimates that early funding for food procurement could save $2bn of the approximate $10bn that is spent on food aid each year.

These represent huge savings — of money and lives. So why isn’t anyone listening?

The way that humanitarian aid is funded is simply not set up to respond to early warnings of crisis. Government donors respond when the needs are acute, and many respond generously when it is splashed over the news. But that money is not available to prevent crises, when the forecasts are looking bad.

The international community collectively said ‘never again’ after 260,000 people died in the Somalia famine in 2011. Even in Ethiopia and Kenya, where the impact was much reduced, the DEC evaluation called the response a ‘system-wide failure’ resulting in ‘far greater suffering than was necessary.’

So has anything improved since then? There have been some innovations:

  • Kenya’s Hunger Safety Net Programme which supports the most vulnerable people in northern arid areas of Kenya is scalable — it can provide cash to more people to support them in drought or flood. It uses objective, scientific triggers to scale up and down, and can transfer cash within two weeks.
  • The Red Cross movement and Climate Centre have been piloting Forecast-based Financing in several countries, including Peru, Mozambique, Bangladesh and the Philippines, where pre-agreed thresholds (eg of river levels, temperature) automatically trigger a pre-agreed response.

What about more recent experience? In the 2015/16 El Niño, the response was considerable in many countries, but inadequate to the size of the challenge.

But we do delay, every time.

But we do delay, every time.

Some donors acted early — eg in Ethiopia, DFID redirected some funding from long-term programmes to emergency response in July 2015 (two months after the El Niño was confirmed and before needs had escalated). But even in Ethiopia, where there is ample experience of drought response and systems and structures ready to respond, research found that late procurement of food cost donors an additional $127m, which could have provided food aid to an additional 1.4m people.

So there is still a long way to go. We need a shift to predictable funding for predictable costs. This is not about more money but funding earlier. The evidence is overwhelming and unequivocal that early action saves costs in three ways — it reduces human suffering, it reduces humanitarian expenditure, and it prevents development losses.

What is needed:

  • A global fund for early action. Most donors have speedy funding mechanisms for rapid onset crises, such as earthquakes or hurricanes, but no donors have a similar mechanism for early action. Humanitarian donors prioritise based on needs, funnelling funding to acute crises, and away from preventing tomorrow’s crisis.
  • A shift in political incentives to enable donors to support early action. British taxpayers need to understand that funding early action to prevent crises is much cheaper and better than late emergency relief. Perhaps an Early Action Scorecard for donors could be developed to provide a political cost to inaction?
  • Taking the political decision-making out. Pre-agreed and objective thresholds should be developed that automatically trigger funding and appropriate response. This can build on the experience of forecast-based financing, taking these pilots up to scale.
  • Shock-responsive programmes that can expand and contract like an accordion in response to changing situations. Using existing programmes, partners and contracts to deliver an early response is preferable to creating a parallel humanitarian structure which is likely to be inefficient, late and more costly.

To respond to the crisis in the Horn right now, what is needed is a massive injection of aid, backed with diplomatic clout and driven by the imperative to save lives. Action now can prevent a catastrophic loss of life. Donors must not wait for a famine declaration before responding. It is sobering to note that in the Somalia famine of 2011, around half of the 260,000 deaths occurred in April-May, before famine was declared.

To prevent the next forecast crisis, we need a recognition that the current system is not fit for purpose and concerted efforts to address this. Humanitarians need to prioritise funding for early response; development agencies need to design programmes that can reduce risk and vulnerability and donors need to be braver, using their funding in the most cost effective way possible for prevention, even if that doesn’t get media attention.