The drought now blighting the vast, arid basin of land that stretches from northern Kenya through central Somalia and into eastern Ethiopia is among the worst anyone has seen. Some regions are drier than they have been since 1951. No rain at all has fallen for more than a year in some places, and recent showers in others were half what would be expected.
Desperate people stumbling into camps and towns to find help are so malnourished that statistics reported to aid offices in Nairobi were at first not believed. “We sent them back because we thought they were wrong,” says one senior aid official in Kenya’s capital, the de facto centre of the current drought response.
In some areas of northern Kenya, 37 per cent of the population need emergency feeding. Across the Horn of Africa, levels of 20 per cent, 25 per cent and 30 per cent are being recorded regularly – double the 15 per cent emergency threshold.
“We may not be seeing the same number at risk as earlier in the decade, but those that are affected are in a much worse situation than perhaps at any time since the early 1990s,” says Alun McDonald of Oxfam in Nairobi.
But none of this should have been a surprise. Save The Children calls today for £40 million to help save the lives of thousands of Kenyan and Somali children. Similarly urgent appeals for aid to east Africa were made in 2009, 2008 and 2006, and since the efforts of Bob Geldof and friends in 1984, there have been at least 60 major food crises in Africa. Reacting to these disasters has seen Western spending on emergency aid to Africa rise by 20 per cent a year, to more than £3 billion a year. Why – after all of that expense, on top of huge amounts funnelled into projects designed to protect people from ever-more frequent droughts – is there a crisis again?
Whatever the reason for the failure of this rainy season – climate change, human overpopulation, the La Niña phenomenon or something else – it was predicted long ago. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) first raised the alert in October. And again in December, and every month since. As did the US-funded Famine Early Warning Systems Network, and many of the aid agencies operating in Nairobi.
The immediate reason why, once again, images of emaciated African children will fill television screens, is simply that there has not been enough rain to fill rivers and to replenish water holes, to turn dustbowl land green with fresh pasture. The people of the region live perpetually on the edge of crisis. They are, for the most part, nomadic livestock herders whose animals are dying and who are being forced to sell whatever assets they have – jewellery, a bicycle, a bucket – to try to buy food.
The soaring prices of staple crops adds to their woes – maize has nearly doubled in price in Kenya, sorghum is 240 per cent dearer today in Somalia than a year ago. Somalia, perhaps worst affected but where figures are hard to pin down, is simply too dysfunctional and mired in war to cope.
The suggestion that up to 12 million people are in urgent need of food, while stark, conceals the fact that taking those affected as a proportion of the total population, the situation is not as severe as it was during the appeals of the early 1990s.
“In Ethiopia, the proportion of people affected by acute malnutrition has halved,” says Andrew Mitchell, the International Development Secretary. “That is a sign of the significant progress being made.
“We are acting promptly to mitigate and blunt the effects of two years without rain in some places, something that is no fault of the people affected. But alongside that, there is clear evidence of the progress being made in mitigating the effect of these crises, so that fewer people in the Horn of Africa are affected by them than were before.”
But the fact is that there are many more people in these drought-affected areas, living off the same land, with worsening rains. “Over-population, both of people, and of their livestock, is all too often the elephant in the room, something too many people are afraid to talk about,” says a senior aid worker in Nairobi.
Increasing amounts of international aid – some of it British – are being spent on projects to give Africa’s women the choice of when and whether to have children. More mouths to feed, when there is less food available, is one of the aid world’s perpetual maths problems. But appealing for money “to fund a disaster averted, rather than a disaster developing” rarely earns significant attention, one aid official says.
“It is simply very difficult to get money to fund the kinds of projects that will stop these crises developing, rather than being forced to ask for money when they have started,” says Cristina Amaral, the FAO’s chief of emergency operations.
There are other schemes, large and small, that are intended to help millions of people stay off the food aid register the next time drought hits. In Ethiopia, £90 million of British aid has been spent on a “food for work” scheme, where people who would find no other employment or earnings are hired to work on projects designed to ease the effects of droughts, and paid in food.
In Kenya, Save The Children is giving people vouchers to buy food in local markets. Several other aid groups are piloting similar schemes, some of them simply handing out cash to people who need food, or transferring it to their mobile phones using the country’s wildly popular Mpesa mobile money system. At a stroke, this boosts businesses and cuts out the sometimes months-long lag between food aid being bought, shipped and distributed by the big international agencies.
“If you had people needing extra food in the West, you wouldn’t give them food parcels, you’d pay money into their bank accounts,” says a veteran British aid worker in Nairobi. “The US gives food stamps. Why has it taken so long to come around to the same thinking in Africa?”
Often, the problem with a small, innovative scheme is widening it to cover more people – what aid agencies call “scaling up”. The most ambitious scaling up would see governments in countries where drought is an ever-present reality take on these ideas, entrench them in their national policies, and enact them.
It is easy to look at the current situation and blame Western aid for failing to prepare people for the disasters that are now unfolding. But such international assistance is necessary only because Africa’s leaders seem unwilling to do the job themselves.
Kenya’s and Ethiopia’s gross domestic products – albeit reliant on earnings from weather-dependent agriculture and horticulture – are roughly £18 billion each. Diplomatic and humanitarian pressure is increasing on these governments to give a larger share of that pot to the people most affected by drought, despite the fact that they are often politically the most ignored in each of their countries.
Build a new road, and food reaches markets more cheaply. Open a slaughterhouse near where herders walk their camels and goats, and their value instantly increases. “I think that you can see that there has been significant progress in exactly these kinds of approaches, in Kenya and especially in Ethiopia,” Mitchell says.
That progress, accelerated and constantly supported, must continue if we are to avoid yet more appeals to feed Africa’s perpetually hungry.