January 2012: When will we learn?

A word from Ross Mountain: January 2012

The recent famine in the Horn of Africa and the currently recurring drought in West Africa’s Sahel region are classic examples of why prevention and preparedness are so important, and reveal the chronic inability of the humanitarian sector to address what are essentially predictable crises early.

Ross Mountain, Director General of DARA

At the time of the Humanitarian Response Index mission in February 2011, many parts of Somalia were suffering from a long-term drought, with over 2 million people in need of assistance. But despite months of warning signs, by June the situation had deteriorated into a full-scale famine, with an estimated 4 million Somalis in need of urgent assistance.  More recently, warning signs of an impending crisis in the Sahel were detected in November 2011. Aid agencies are calling for immediate action to prevent the region from slipping into crisis. What do we need to do for action to take place?

Hundreds of humanitarian organisations have signed The Code of Conduct for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and NGOs in Disaster Relief  committing themselves to not crassly manipulate images of humanitarian suffering as a means to mobilise resources, and to present disaster-affected populations with dignity, capacities and resilience. Yet after 20 years since the Code was drafted, this seems to be the only way to motivate donors and the public to action. Why do we need to wait for starving babies to appear on our television screens before necessary support is forthcoming? Surely there must be a better way?

The Charter to End Extreme Hunger, drafted and endorsed by organisations and key figures from around the world, sets out a number of commitments for governments to undertake in order to prevent future famine and acute food crises, including acting on early warning signs. DARA welcomes this Charter because it makes good sense, and reinforces all of the learning and evaluations we have conducted over the past several years. Focused long-term programmes for building resilience, prevention and preparedness in vulnerable countries are still unfortunately the exception, not an integral part of our overall approach to reducing the impact of food insecurity and hunger.

Most donors well understand that the link between investing in preparedness and responding to a crisis is essential. However, timely actions and resources to actually address the issues are still mired in sterile bureaucratic debates and divisions over which envelopes to fund such programmes.  All too often such considerations have been left to humanitarian budgets to address. Yet building resilience needs to be recognised -and pursued-as a major aim of development and humanitarian programmes in vulnerable countries. Such an approach saves lives- and money.

Recent media attention and key donor interest in such issues is welcome but needs to be sustained, especially in the light of aid cutbacks by most OECD/DAC donors. Building resilience is about building national and local institutions and capacity in affected countries. Typically such programmes need to go beyond physical provisions to review governance and socio-economic patterns.

One positive example of how to approach this from a more integrated manner is the FOREWARN programme, which seeks to reduce risks and improve preparedness and resilience in West Africa, including the increased risks associated with climate change. This initiative developed and implemented in collaboration with ECOWAS, the Humanitarian Futures Programme (HFP), the African Leadership Centre (ALC) and DARA is funded by Australia and Spain.  Hopefully, the project can act as a catalyst for other such initiatives, and as an example for other donors to follow through on their commitments to increase resilience and reduce vulnerability.

For the sake of the populations at risk in such areas we must act now to avert what are essentially predictable crises and avoidable human suffering!