By Alexander Matheou, regional representative, IFRC, East Africa
14 October 2011, Nairobi — Throughout this autumn, in Addis Ababa, Nairobi and capitals across the world, the Heads of East African governments have committed to eradicating drought emergencies, and have urged the international community to invest in building viable livelihoods in the dry lands of the Horn of Africa. The rhetoric is right – but will the right action follow?
There should be no underestimating the complexity of this challenge. The root causes can be traced back millennia, to historic and relentless trends of settled, hierarchical and agricultural based societies encroaching into the territories of nomadic communities until the land left to the nomads is insufficient to support sustainable livelihoods. The Horn of Africa dry lands were one of the few remaining terrains where it appeared nomadic pastoralists could continue to thrive. But over the last 50 years, the encroachment of agriculture and exclusion of nomadic communities has intensified at dramatic pace, turning natural droughts into unnatural disasters.
Now at least, the proposed ways forward and commitment to focus on root causes and sustainable solutions are welcome, albeit not new.
Over the last 20 years, governments and humanitarian organisations have reflected on the causes of these drought disasters, identified policy solutions, designed early warning systems, and proposed and piloted more empowering, sustainable interventions. But further commitment is needed as efforts so far have clearly not been enough.
Partly this is because the root causes of the current crisis in the Horn of Africa, such as the conflict in Somalia, are well outside the influence of any development agenda, and in part because investment in developing the arid lands has been low. But where accountability can and should be laid at the doorstep of humanitarian organisations, is regarding how much aid money is actually spent on enabling communities, to sustainably access health and education, manage water sources and diversify livelihoods.
Droughts are slow, recurring events, and responses can be sluggish, as donor fatigue and the multiple drivers of the crises temper the impact of any individual action. A combination of events made 2011 a particularly bad year – another failed rain, alarmingly high food prices and increased population movement. Emergency appeals though were mostly underfunded, even if in total, the humanitarian industry had already collected hundreds of millions of dollars even before the media stirred the world’s attention.
The media has a powerful effect on humanitarian organisations. The cameras are a rallying call for more action, and particularly, more visible action. This can be extremely positive, but it can also pull energy and attention into the most extreme tip of a crisis and the immediate response, inadvertently drawing attention away from broader perspectives, less dramatic perhaps, about what will really help in the long run.
Yet it is precisely during high profile crises that we need to hold our course. These are the opportunities to raise the funds so badly needed, to challenge public and government donors to invest responsibly, to highlight and turn the ideas and commitments, articulated at no small cost in strategy and policy documents, into action.
In many arid areas of drought-stricken Kenya, crumbling remnants of abandoned aid projects litter the land. People there struggle to survive in artificially created settlements inhabited by aid dependent pastoralists. Though well-intentioned from the outset, these interventions were ultimately unsustainable and potentially even harmful. More sustainable solutions do exist and there are many examples dotted across Kenya where former pastoralists are now cultivating crops and selling off their surpluses.
Outside of conflict areas, there really is no excuse not to realise commitments to sustainable solutions. The knowledge and experience is there. But it will challenge conventional ways of working: for donors, who put too tight a deadline on spending; for donor governments, who place divides between emergency and development investments; for media, who concentrate on the most extreme images instead of underlying causes; and for humanitarian organisations, who must bridge the short term need to alleviate acute suffering with the time and energy to support sustainable livelihoods.
We need to embrace these challenges for this drought, because we know we will be here again.
For more information, or to set up interviews, please contact:
• Nancy Okwengu, communications officer, IFRC East Africa
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• Faye Callaghan, communications manager, IFRC Africa
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• Jessica Sallabank, Senior Media Officer, IFRC Geneva
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