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Failure to respond led to thousands of needless deaths in Africa - aid agencies

“Many donors wanted proof of a humanitarian catastrophe before acting to prevent one” – Oxfam, Save the Children.

Image: Farah Abdi Warsameh/AP/Press Association Images

TWO INTERNATIONAL CHARITIES have strongly criticised the international community for failing to take decisive action on early warnings of the food crisis in the Horn of Africa.

In a report published this morning, Oxfam and Save the Children said thousands of deaths occurred and millions of extra dollars were spent needlessly because of the delayed response.

Between 50,000 and 100,000 people died from April to August last year as a result of drought and more than half of them were children under five.

The report, tellingly entitled A Dangerous Delay, claims that a “culture of risk aversion caused a six-month delay in the large-scale aid effort”.

Humanitarian agencies and national governments were too slow to scale up their response to the crisis and many donors wanted proof of a humanitarian catastrophe before acting to prevent one.

Early-warning systems

The charities said that early-warning systems first forecast the emergency as early as August 2010 but the full-scale response was not launched until July 2011. At that point, malnutrition rates in parts of the region had gone far beyond the emergency threshold.

Save the Children and Oxfam say more funding for food emergencies should be sought and released as soon as the crisis signs are clear, rather than the current system which funds large scale emergency work only when hunger levels have reached tipping-point – by which time lives have already been lost and the cost of the response is much greater.

Both agencies have called on governments to overhaul their responses to food crises.

“We all bear responsibility for this dangerous delay that cost lives in East Africa and need to learn the lessons of the late response,” said Oxfam Ireland’s chief executive Jim Clarken.

It’s shocking that the poorest people are still bearing the brunt of a failure to respond swiftly and decisively. We know that acting early saves lives but collective risk aversion meant aid agencies were reluctant to spend money until they were certain there was a crisis.”

Some good action

The report found that some good work did take place in the affected region with early support for a number of families but much more was needed, said Oxfam.

The scale of the crisis outstripped the work being done so costly interventions had to take place, such as trucking water to 80,000 people each day as a last resort lifesaving mechanism at the cost of $3 million instead of pre-prepared water sources which would have cost $900,000.

Such early support could have kept animals healthy, markets functioning and malnutrition rates lower.

Today, Somalia’s food crisis is the worst in the world and hundreds of thousands of people remain at risk.

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