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Oxfam report blames U.N. for slow response to Somalia famine

The United Nations, African governments, foreign aid donors, and relief agencies responded too slowly to the early warning signs that preceded the century’s worst famine in East Africa last year, leading to the unnecessary deaths of thousands of civilians, according to a review by the aid agencies Oxfam International and Save the Children. In a ...

John Moore/Getty Images
John Moore/Getty Images

The United Nations, African governments, foreign aid donors, and relief agencies responded too slowly to the early warning signs that preceded the century’s worst famine in East Africa last year, leading to the unnecessary deaths of thousands of civilians, according to a review by the aid agencies Oxfam International and Save the Children.

In a joint briefing paper, entitled A Dangerous Delay, the two aid agencies claimed that early warning systems in place in east Africa accurately predicted the possibility of a major food crisis as early as the summer of 2010, but that a full-scale humanitarian response was not mounted until after the U.N. declared famine in July, 2011.

"The emergency in the Horn of Africa in 2011 was no sudden onset crisis… There were indications that a crisis was coming from as early as August 2010," reads the report. "The scale of death and suffering, and the financial cost, could have been reduced if early warning systems had triggered an earlier, more substantial response."

The reports’ authors say it is impossible to know how many people died during the 2011 famine, which struck communities in Kenya, Ethiopia, and Somalia. But it cited estimates suggesting that somewhere between 50,000 to 100,000 may have perished.

The failure to respond more swiftly to the unfolding humanitarian crisis is part of "systemic failure of the international system" to construct a safety net to protect vulnerable communities from drought, notes the report. It called for a more active role in preparing for a developing food crisis underway in the Sahel, with millions of people at risk of hunger in at least five countries. "Tragically, the 2011 crisis is not an isolated case," the report states. "The response to drought is invariably too little too late."

The U.S. Agency for International Aid (USAID) first published a paper in August 2010, warning that the weather phenomenon known as La Niña was likely to lead to a decline in rainfall during the subsequent two rainy seasons.

Faced with a total failure of the October-December rainy season, the Food Security and Nutrition Working Group for East Africa (FSNWG) set up a La Niña task force. In December 2010, it stated that "preemptive action is needed to protect livelihoods and avoid later costly lifesaving emergency interventions."

USAID’s Famine Early Warning System Network, meanwhile, predicted on March 15, 2010, that there would be "localized famine conditions [in southern Somalia], including significantly increased child mortality… if the worst case scenario assumptions are realized." A "failure of the March or May rains is likely to result in a major crisis," USAID warned. "Yet this call was not adequately heeded," the report stated.

The report notes that responsibility for the slow response to the crisis in East Africa was shared by a range of local governments, foreign donors, policy makers, and humanitarian aid agencies. But it singled out the United Nations for moving too slowly to scale up their relief operations and failing to anticipate the impact that La Niña would have on rainfall. The World Food Program, it added, had major problems in meeting its food commitments in Kenya and in south central Somalia, where the Islamist insurgent group al-Shabab denied foreign relief agencies access to famine-stricken areas.

"The UN humanitarian appeal in November 2010 seriously underestimated the number of people in need of emergency aid," reads the report. One of the reasons, the report states, is that the U.N. carried out its needs assessment in September 2010 — a month before the rainy season was to begin, and didn’t take into account weather forecasts of abnormally low rainfall that occurred over subsequent months.

Also, U.N. appeals for funding for Somalia were based on the number of people the U.N. believed it could reach, not the number of people in need, "potentially giving a misleading picture of needs within the country…This was clearly a factor in the failure to scale up the response early on."

A spokeswoman for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Amanda Pitt, said that many of the reports findings "echoed our own concerns," citing the U.N. appeals to governments to provide funding earlier and to be more flexible about how the funding is used. But she also said that the report failed to provide a more balanced account of constraints on U.N. relief experts, especially the challenges of delivering aid in a conflict zone in Somalia, where they faced the threat of violence from al-Shabab. "If we had better access we would have had a better early warning system," she said.

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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