October 24, 2011

Tom Arnold, the CEO of Concern Worldwide, describes the Horn of Africa famine crisis as the worst he has ever seen. Arnold addressed students in SIPA’s MPA in Development Practice program on September 22.

Concern Worldwide is a non-governmental, international, humanitarian organization whose core mission is to make sustainable improvements in the lives of the extreme poor. Concern Worldwide has been involved in providing relief materials such as Ready to Use Therapeutic Food to malnourished children, food vouchers to families on the verge of extreme hunger and mass meal programmes. Concern joins a host of aid agencies such as the World Food Programme (WFP), Oxfam, and CARE in providing relief to the people in the Horn of Africa. SIPA alumna Jane Han (MPA ‘11) is currently posted in Kenya with Save the Children, supporting the logistics of relief to refugees of the famine.

In a presentation tagged “Innovation in Humanitarian and Development Practice,” Arnold described the hunger situation in the Horn of Africa as severe; a drought turned famine that has left millions of people without food.

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reports that there are 13.3 million in need of humanitarian assistance with about 1.5 million internally displaced people in Somalia.

The Horn of Africa broadly encompasses Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti, and Kenya. Somalia is the worst hit country with 4 million of the country’s estimated 7.5 million people in crisis.

While droughts are not new to the horn of Africa, this is said to be the worst in 60 years. The complete failure of the last two rainy seasons (October – December 2010 and April – June 2011) has resulted in the worst annual crop production in 17 years, reduction of labor demand, below average livestock prices and excessive livestock mortality. The impact of the drought has further been exacerbated by high food and fuel prices, and the continuing absence of a functional government in Somalia.

Concern about the impact of drought in the region escalated in June, when the Famine Early Warning Systems Network, FEWSNET, reported that this year was among the driest since 1950.

As of September 2, FEWSNET classified 18.9 million people as food insecure in the Horn of Africa. Arnold highlighted that the magnitude of the famine has been worsened by the slow responsiveness to the warning system. A rapid donor response to the early warnings might have made a world of difference.

According to Arnold: In Somalia, the political terrain has made outside intervention difficult and restricted humanitarian access in some areas. For the most part humanitarian agencies have been unable to work in southern Somalia since early 2010.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in a recent statement said “We could save many more lives if we were given free access to areas under the control of al-Shabaab [insurgents]. It is no coincidence that these are the districts where the crisis is most acute. Somalia will never be free of the threat of famine until it has peace and stability.”

Despite the presence of aid agencies, the conditions are worsening and may continue to do so.  Evidence from FEWSNET suggests that food security in agro pastoral and riverine areas of the south will deteriorate in the coming four months.

Somalis have fled in droves to Mogadishu and refugees camps in Kenya and Ethiopia in search of food, water and help. Arnold told the story of Amina a 31-year-old lady with five children, of whom three died on the way to a refugee camp and the fourth died from malaria on arrival. This is the typical story of loss and suffering experienced by the over 400,000 who have been reported to flee to refugee camps.

Although meteorologists predict rainfall in the coming weeks, aid agencies are concerned that the risk of disease spread will increase among vulnerable populations living in refugee camps as outbreaks of cholera, diarrhoea already detected in makeshift camps may be escalated by the rains.

Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland, accompanied Arnold on a recent visit to Somalia as part of Concern’s effort to raise awareness about the famine.

“This is an affront to us,” she said. “It is unacceptable in the 21st century as we have the knowledge and resources to help.”

In a fitting coincidence, at a UN Horn of Africa mini-summit held September 24, new aid commitment to the region of $218 million was made. How the new aid commitment will translate to real improvement in living conditions in the Horn of Africa remains to be seen.

Tom Arnold’s talk offered SIPA students new insights to the challenges of delivering effective assistance to hungry and displaced people of this impoverished region. The challenge for development practitioners is to innovate and act in a way that ensures a transition from emergency assistance to sustainable development.

Osaretin Osarenren (MPA DP ‘13), October 24, 2011