The cost of neglect: half a million people across East Africa on the brink of famine

Diyaara stands among the carcasses of her family's livestock.

Diyaara, from Wajir County in Kenya, stands among the carcasses of her family's livestock. Of the fifty animals she owned, she now has 7 remaining. “We now have to skip meals and resort to one meal a day. And at times we have to prioritize the children's eating and starve the grown-ups in order to sustain what little food we have”, she says. Photo: Khadija Farah/Oxfam

In 2011, Somalia experienced a devastating famine that killed over a quarter of a million people – half of them children under the age of five. The international community failed to act in time, despite repeated warnings of an impending crisis.

In the wake of the tragedy, regional and international actors made a commitment that the next crisis would not lead to famine in the twenty-first century. Next time, the world would heed the warnings and respond on time.

Yet, just over a decade later, world leaders are once again acting too late and with too little to avert catastrophic hunger in East Africa. Despite various warnings and alarms over the past two years, they are once again waiting until the crisis has hit before committing the urgently needed resources to scale-up life-saving response.

A predictable crisis

The current crisis in the Horn of Africa has been unfolding for more than two years. It is neither new, nor a surprise. Climate-induced drought has been a common and costly feature over the past 10 years. More severe and prolonged, it is now the worst in 40 years. Yet, the region is one of the least responsible for the climate crisis, emitting 0.1% of global carbon emissions.

Compounded by conflicts forcing people out of their homes, and COVID-19 economic turmoil, the drought has eroded economic reserves and decimated people’s last ability to cope. Nearly half of the livestock in East Africa has perished. The Ukraine conflict has also driven already soaring food prices to their highest level ever recorded, making food unattainable for millions.

The number of people facing extreme hunger in Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia has more than doubled since last year, from over 10 million to over 23 million today. Nearly half a million are already facing starvation. Across the region, it is estimated that:

1/48 sec.

One person on average is likely dying every 48 seconds from acute hunger.

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5.7 million children are expected to be acutely malnourished in 2022.


350,000 Somali children will die by the summer if action is not taken immediately.

Hunger is a political failure

A decade after governments, donors and aid organizations said they would not let famine return, 181 million people are forecast to be in crisis levels and above of hunger.

This is not a failure of the warning systems. This is a failure of political will. A failure to address conflict, to open humanitarian access, to act with the urgency needed on the climate crisis, to shift power to local organizations and to provide the resources we know are necessary.

“People are starving not because the world lacks food or money, but for a dismal lack of political courage.”

Gabriela Bucher
Oxfam International's Executive Director

With such rising needs we can no longer afford to wait for emergencies to develop. Governments and international actors must work together with affected communities to prepare and respond to risks, rather than wait for crises to spiral out of control.

Waiting until millions of children are malnourished, removed from school and families have lost vital assets and livelihoods, is unacceptable when the warning signs are visible so much earlier and when we know all the benefits – both financial and in terms of human lives – of acting pre-emptively.

It is not too late to prevent catastrophe

A decade ago, we said never again to famine. To the millions of people who are once again on the edge of starvation we have failed in that promise. We must respond now, at scale, to avert further tragedy.

We can still stop this from turning into a full-scale catastrophe if we act now. Please support Oxfam’s work providing lifesaving aid to those who need it most.