London — Governments are failing to prevent hunger emergencies in developing nations, despite ample warning, because they see more political danger than reward in acting early to avert famine, a report from the Chatham House thinktank said on Friday.
To prevent further food crises like those that hit millions of people in the Horn and Sahel regions of Africa in the past two years, the misalignment between political and humanitarian risks must be addressed, or aid needs will increasingly go unmet because drought-related hunger is affecting growing numbers of people in Africa, the report said.
"Rapid population growth, low levels of political inclusion, low agricultural yields and rapid environmental change mean the risk of food crises in the Horn and Sahel is increasing," said the report from the London-based Royal Institute of International Affairs. "Conflict and geopolitics act as risk multipliers, meaning that full-blown famine remains a serious threat."
Drought-related food crises are the most deadly of all natural hazards and are estimated to have cost between 1 and 2 million lives since 1970.
The report explains why the international aid community is still dragging its feet on early warnings, even though these have improved considerably. For example, alerts were issued for 11 months before famine was finally declared in Somalia in July 2011, and the relief system was mobilised, it said.
One of the main reasons was political, as Western donor nations feared their aid could end up supporting the Islamist militant group al Shabaab, considered a terrorist organisation by Washington, according to the report. "From a donor perspective, the risk of humanitarian aid being captured by al Shabaab took priority over the risk of a humanitarian catastrophe in Somalia," it said.
Another worry for wealthy governments is being accused of wasting taxpayers' money on a crisis that never happened, said Rob Bailey, senior research fellow at Chatham House and the report's lead author.
"That results in a set of funding institutions and decision-making processes in donor agencies, the U.N. and NGOs that seek to minimise those (political) risks at the expense of not really dealing with the risk of famine at all," he told AlertNet.
In practice, this means centralised decision-making, onerous reporting systems, delays in releasing aid cash until it is too late, and a lack of willingness to experiment with new ways of doing things, Bailey added.
But the blame does not only lie with the international community, the report said.
SHAMED INTO ACTION
Governments in countries at risk of food crises are also guilty of ignoring warnings and playing down the severity of a situation. That may be because they don't want to harm their record on reducing hunger, or because they have little incentive to protect vulnerable communities which are often politically marginalised.
In 2011, when poor, sparsely populated northern Kenya was hard hit by drought, Nairobi was widely criticised for its slow response. The government was eventually spurred into action, partly by a campaign launched by Kenyan media and businesses encouraging the public to make donations via mobile phone, Bailey said, pointing to the potential for a free press and civil society to make a political difference.
Similar dynamics were at work internationally when, soon after, more than 18 million people across West Africa faced a major food crisis.
"In the case of the Sahel last year, there was very clearly a big sense of shame about what had happened in the Horn of Africa and particularly Somalia, and people were openly talking about the need to show that we've learned lessons," Bailey said. This led to a certain amount of early action that prevented a downward spiral into famine, he added.
"It worked in a way, but I don't think fundamentally anything has changed in terms of the underlying institutions, the operational capacities. It was about managing political risks rather than anything else, and on that occasion the political risk calculus favoured early action," the food security expert said.
The report suggests reforms that could generate greater political will for early action on food crises. Key recommendations include making governments more accountable to vulnerable groups, and supporting communities to protect themselves from drought and hunger.
A larger share of international emergency response funds should be channelled into preparing for and avoiding disasters, and more long-term backing given to innovative ideas such as drought insurance, Bailey said.
The report calls for the development of "resilience labs" where governments, aid agencies and early warning providers could team up to test new approaches and demonstrate success.
Donor countries could also work out a better system for sharing the responsibility to act on warnings and responding in a more coordinated way. And they could communicate to their voters at home that acting to prevent a crisis costs less than waiting for it to happen, Bailey said.
"The trickier stuff is how you shift incentives so that decision makers are going to be properly rewarded for taking decisions to respond early, and feel that they have cover in the event that those decisions - every now and again - prove not to be necessarily the right ones," he said.
The report, Managing Famine Risk: Linking Early Warning to Early Action, is being launched at Chatham House on Friday.