Thousands of lives and millions of dollars lost due to late response to food crisis in East Africa

Published: 18th January 2012

Lessons learned can help prevent future disasters and save lives

Thousands of needless deaths occurred and millions of extra dollars were spent because the international community failed to take decisive action on early warnings of a hunger crisis in East Africa, according to a new report by the international aid agencies Oxfam and Save the Children.

The report, A Dangerous Delay, says a culture of risk aversion caused a six month delay in the large-scale aid effort because 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.

Sophisticated early warning systems first forecast a likely emergency as early as August 2010 but the full-scale response was not launched until July 2011 when malnutrition rates in parts of the region had gone far beyond the emergency threshold and there was high profile media coverage of the crisis.

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. The agencies are calling on governments to overhaul their response to food crises, as laid out in the Charter to End Extreme Hunger, a document that has already received backing from key international figures.

Acting early saves lives

"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’s Chief Executive Barbara Stocking. “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."

"We can no longer allow this grotesque situation to continue; where the world knows an emergency is coming but ignores it until confronted with TV pictures of desperately malnourished children," said Save the Children's Chief Executive Justin Forsyth. “The warning signs were clear and with more money when it really mattered, the suffering of thousands of children would have been avoided. All governments should sign the Charter to End Extreme Hunger to help ensure a crisis like this can never happen again."

While some positive action by governments did take place – such as improved early warning systems and social protection schemes that meant families were given some early support – much more was needed across the region.

Although it is impossible to calculate exactly how many people died as a result of drought, the UK government estimates that between 50,000 and 100,000 lives were lost between April and August 2011, more than half of them children under the age of five. Today, Somalia remains the most acute food crisis in the world, with hundreds of thousands of people still at risk.

Some early action did take place. But overall, the scale of crisis outstripped these efforts, and more costly interventions had to be taken at a later stage. Trucking five liters of water per day as a last resort lifesaving intervention to 80,000 people in Ethiopia costs more than $3 million for five months, compared to $900,000 to prepare water sources in the same area for an oncoming drought.

Looming food crisis in West Africa

Across East Africa, providing early support to families to keep their animals healthy and markets functioning would have helped prevent soaring malnutrition rates, as hundreds of thousands lost their livelihoods when their livestock was wiped out by drought.

The report, which comes ahead of global meetings at Davos and the African Union, is a timely reminder that the international community must act fast to avert disaster in West Africa, where a looming food crisis threatens to affect millions of people. A recent Save the Children assessment in Niger shows families in the worst hit areas are already struggling with around one third less food, money and fuel than is necessary to survive.

Kofi Annan, Chair of the Africa Progress Panel said: “Achieving global food and nutrition security is the challenge of our time, and our success in alleviating widespread hunger will depend, in large part, on our ability to identify the early warning signs of food crises, and respond immediately and effectively.”

Further reforms to tackle hunger crises like the East Africa emergency are set out in the Charter to End Extreme Hunger, a joint-agency initiative, which urges governments to fulfill their responsibilities and take concrete steps to stop catastrophic food crises from happening again.

Read more

Download the report: A Dangerous Delay: The cost of late response to early warnings in the 2011 drought in the Horn of Africa

East Africa Food Crisis

Oxfam's GROW campaign

We all bear responsibility for this dangerous delay that cost lives in East Africa and need to learn the lessons of the late response.
Barbara Stocking
Chief Executive, Oxfam GB

Notes to editors

  1. Broadcast-quality footage and photographs of the East Africa crisis and response are available.
  2. While it is impossible to calculate exactly how many people have died in the East Africa crisis, one DFID estimate suggests that it could be between 50,000 to 100,000 people, more than half of them children under five. Another estimate made by US government was that more than 29,000 children under age 5 died in 90 days from May to July. Widespread support for livelihoods threatened by drought would have done much to prevent malnutrition taking hold. The death of livestock due to the drought wiped out the income of hundreds of thousands of families, leaving them unable to afford to buy enough food. Early supplementary feeding of livestock could have kept herds alive, markets functioning and could ultimately have helped prevent the malnutrition that killed so many.
  3. According to UN OCHA, in southern and central regions of Somalia a standard measure of malnutrition (median Global Acute Malnutrition (GAM) prevalence) increased from 16.4% to 36.4% in 2011. This means that GAM already exceeded the 15% ‘critical’ threshold early in 2011.
  4. Save the Children has reached more than 280,000 people in Somalia, in addition to more than one million in Ethiopia and over 440,000 in Kenya.
  5. Oxfam has reached about 1.5m in Somalia, 300,000 in Ethiopia and about one million in Kenya with clean water, sanitation services, therapeutic feeding for malnourished children, cash and livelihood support.
  6. Early warning systems in the Sahel region show that overall cereal production is 25% lower than the previous year, and food prices are 40% higher than the five-year average. The last food crisis in the region, in 2010, affected 10 million people.
  7. Read the Charter to End Extreme Hunger, endorsed by Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga, European Commissioner for Humanitarian Affairs Kristalina Georgieva and other leaders including UK Development Minister Andrew Mitchell.

Contact information

Anna Ridout, +44 (0)7766 443506 or +44 (0)1865 473415,