The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

Lecture - Wednesday 8th February 2012

Famine in the Horn of Africa: What does it mean for Ethiopia?

Given by - Laura Hammond

Reviewed by - Tony Diggle

On Wednesday 8 February, 2012, the Society had the benefit of a very informative lecture entitled Famine in the Horn of Africa from Laura Hammond, Senior Lecturer in Development Studies at SOAS.

The background to the lecture was the problem of food insecurity in the Horn of Africa, but the focus was on Ethiopia's pastoral regions which have also been affected but received less attention. Ms Hammond began reminding the audience that the international media coverage of the famine in Ethiopia in 1984-5 had led to the beginning of engagement with this problem, but that famine was now in the pastoral lowlands. Recently 13.3 million people in the Horn of Africa needed humanitarian assistance, and the problem was exacerbated by the presence of Al-Shabab.

The unhappy story of how the recent famine situation had developed in Ethiopia was then recounted. The rains failed in 2010, and at the beginning of 2011, the Ethiopian Government issued an early warning about the problem, but underestimated what the actual needs would be. Thus there was a failure of preventative action in the first half of 2011. There were 2.8 million people in need at the beginning of the year, and this had risen to 4.5 million after June. Agencies waited and didn't scale up their response; donors did not respond sufficiently. Only two thirds of the aid required was delivered. Thus by 2012 there were still 3.2 million people in need, and crop production would be expected to be low in the year following on the 'famine year'. The situation was made worse by the influx of Somali refugees for which Ethiopia was initially unprepared.

Yet this took place against a backdrop of an improving Ethiopian infrastructure to deal with famine situations. In August 2010, the government instituted an early warning system that according to Ms Hammond was "one of the best in the world". Disaster risk management policies and practices were well promoted, and there was a Productive Safety Net Programme (PSNP) which included some resettlement. Investment was also being made in health infrastructure, including a Pastoral Community Development Programme (PCDP). This dealt with nomadic peoples, but their movements were regular which meant a defined number of clinics could be set up in a support of them on a 'hub and spokes' principle for the Somali region.

Looking to the future, recovery would take two to three years of sustained good rains, but harvests would initially be low because of low planting, and this would lead to high food prices for a time.

Steps needed to improve responses to future famine situations were considered. Triggers needed to be identified which would generate a prompt response at the outset. (Earlier Ms Hammond had pointed out that Ethiopia had a good anticipatory system, but that UN assessment didn't follow seasons, and consequently underestimated needs. There was also a need for greater flexibility in judging when to switch resources between development and relief, but this raised questions of accountability.) National policy and strategy on disaster risk management needed to develop further, and would need to involve devolution of some activities to local level. Emergency food bank reserves needed to be in place so that they could be drawn on before donor aid arrived.

Looking to the future of pastoralism in Ethiopia, the government was planning villagisation and sedentarization schemes, but vulnerability to drought would still need to be managed.

Thinking about the lecture afterwards, I wasn't sure whether to be saddened by the ongoing occurrence of famines in Ethiopia, or to be heartened by the considerable scope of the recent initiatives set up to combat them, even if there is still much work to be done. The increasing aridity of the region due to climate change (which came up during the post-lecture discussion) was a reminder of how much work this is. Perhaps the salient point is the level of awareness that now exists about these issues and their complexity, and the real work now accompanying it. It is this which should give us hope that these initiatives will be steadily and rapidly built on in the future. A very informative evening.

First Published in News File Summer 2012

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