Politics, war, migration: the anatomy of a humanitarian crisis

Published: 5 July 2011 10:54 CET

By Alexander Matheou

Another drought has hit the Horn of Africa, but we need to look beyond the lack of rain to find the reasons why these long, dry seasons become humanitarian crises, and these reasons should tell us something about how we need to respond.

When drought hits the Horn, the worst affected are the Somali communities, who live in the driest regions, crossing parts of Kenya, Ethiopia, Somalia and Djibouti.

For centuries these communities had mastered strategies to survive such cycles of drought: by reducing livestock to a manageable size at critical moments, and through ingenious pursuit of pasture and water across the arid lands.

Today it’s a different story. Many of the same survival strategies are still used, but politics, war and demographic changes are undermining their ability to see populations safely through the cycles of drought.

The borders of Kenya, Ethiopia, Somalia and Djibouti carve up the Somali lands and restrict the migration patterns that had historically been essential for pastoralist survival.  Since independence, East African states had an inherent mistrust of nomadic peoples who had little interest in being governed by distant capitals rooted in alien languages and traditions. In Ethiopia and Kenya particularly, pastoralist movement was restricted, and they remained largely isolated from development agendas in other parts of the country.

Yet they couldn’t remain isolated from the effects of international agendas, both malign and benevolent in intent. Regional conflict and power games filled the arid lands with small arms, escalating low level disputes into bloodier, more decisive conflicts. Aid agencies flocked in, and unwittingly cultivated new traditions of dependency, propping up unviable lifestyles and engraining emergency aid into the everyday coping mechanisms of pastoralists.

Beneath the surface

This complex web of agendas was only the surface covering more seismic changes impacting on the viability of pastoralist life in arid lands, the most prominent being population growth.  There are over four times as many people in Kenya and Ethiopia today than there were fifty years ago.

Click to read more about the appeal

Pasture quickly becomes scarce under such human and livestock pressure, and extended dry seasons soon turn into crises.

In other words, inevitable and natural cycles of drought are just the straw that breaks the camel’s back – but they are not the cause.

Now it appears the camel’s back is broken again.  Refugees are pouring across borders with alarming malnutrition rates, fighting is breaking out over the few remaining functioning boreholes, children are leaving schools and spending their days in search of water, livestock are dying and livelihoods are being lost. In humanitarian circles, people are beginning to whisper the word ‘famine’.

Much of this suffering could have been avoided by more early action. There were seasonal forecasts showing that the rains across the arid lands would fail. The right actions taken at the right time could have stopped many communities from tipping over into destitution. Yet despite all the lessons from previous droughts, and all the advances in early warning, government and public donors still don’t support mitigation work at the scale needed. Somehow, this must change.

Even now, there is much we can do to ensure the humanitarian response is appropriate.

First, we need to avoid the apathy trap that lingers around slow onset emergencies in the Horn. Recurrent crises have heightened the world’s tolerance of malnutrition and suffering in the region, but when a threshold is crossed, we must still be prepared to respond.

Secondly, while saving lives will always be the first priority, an underlying focus of humanitarian response should be to protect people’s capacity for economic regeneration. This will mean looking for flexible ways to provide assistance that avoid people moving into settlements from which they may never leave.

Thirdly, we need to keep listening to aspirations that people have for their lives. There are big shifts going on in the Horn: from pastoralist to agriculture, from agriculture to urban. Assistance should complement capacities to make these shifts successfully.

Fourthly, we need to focus on keeping children in schools.  Their future options and resilience will be forever shaped by whether or not they have an education. 

Finally, we need to remember that there is always a risk that the humanitarian community will shield governments from healthy accountability by taking over emergency relief. The best protection against cycles of drought becoming humanitarian crises lies with accountable government, and our work must assist, and not undermine, that end.  
Emergency response is not going to address the root causes of this crisis, but well resourced and managed, it can at least help people through it.

Related documents

Questions and Answers

Horn of Africa: Questions and Answers

What is the current situation in the Horn of Africa? The drought situation remains severe and it ...

Related stories

Ethiopia Red Cross: Helping communities find solutions in the face of desperation

“We planted crops, they did not grow. We dug a pond, but there was no rain to fill it. Now we ...

Ethiopia: “We are confident we will survive this drought”

Her livestock dead and crops ruined, Mengiste Bala and her twelve children were on the margins ...

Drought takes hold in Djibouti

Djibouti is one of the smallest countries on the African continent. Situated between Ethiopia, ...

Don’t blame it on the rain

Is the Horn of Africa facing the worst drought in sixty years? Perhaps. Yet, in recent decades, ...

Improving food security in drought-affected areas of Ethiopia

Melia Mussa was born 40 years ago. She is one of the many beneficiaries in Grawa, East Hararghe ...