A Letter from the Horn of Africa to the Sahel
I am sorry to hear of the 19 million people in your region who are facing critical food insecurity. Having gone through this myself only just last year, I understand, and I thought that maybe it was time I contacted you so that together we can work out how to change things.
In many ways, I am still trying to recover; in fact, over 9 million of my people in Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia and Djibouti are still in need of humanitarian assistance. In some regions of Ethiopia and southern Somalia children under five are already showing signs of acute malnutrition. So you may think, who am I to give you advice when my situation is clearly not much better than yours? Well, I may not have all the answers to everything but I do know one thing: droughts, even extreme ones do not come as a surprise to us. We have been here several times before. We must stop reacting to these situations the same way and learn new ways to protect our people.
My experience in 2011 taught me that our best efforts at using early warning systems and monitoring the food security situation of local communities will always be undermined if warnings are not heeded and acted upon. We’ve both been through droughts so many times before; we know very well when poor rains are likely to turn into something more serious. We must learn to trust this judgement and for others to trust us too.
When the situation goes from bad to worse (and I hope you don’t get to this point) the right support for emergency responses is vital. For example, last year, we learned that cash interventions could help as much, if not more than food distributions and that some emergency responses could be harmful to our longer-term interventions. Our people don’t want to be dependent. They have the skills and resilience to respond to drought and they know best how to cope. But even the best, traditional coping mechanisms cannot withstand increasingly changing climate patterns, uncontrollable rises in food prices, and chronic conflict on top of years of underinvestment in these vulnerable areas.
I hope that the funds and assistance you are beginning to receive are enough. Increased financial support is vital, not only to save the millions of lives that are in immediate risk, but also to help you to invest in longer-term interventions that protect people’s assets and supports them to cope and develop resilience to future shocks. In my experience, built into this approach must also be the ability to respond quickly and comprehensively when times will, inevitably, get tough again and a commitment to continue working to prevent crises when times are good.
Over the years we’ve changed the labels that we use to describe the tools we use, to explain the problems, and the solutions available to us, but fundamentally the reasons behind our food security crises have stayed the same.
A real challenge I faced last year was the fact that increasingly the most vulnerable communities in my region are located in the hardest to reach areas. Conflict and insecurity means it was really difficult to reach families who needed our help the most. We have to ensure everyone respects the rights of communities in need to receive assistance. Sometimes this means we have to think outside the box and come up with new ways to reach people. But this doesn’t mean we should compromise our principles. Humanitarian agencies should still deliver quality projects in a more coordinated way and be accountable for what they do.
Our Governments and their partners need to invest resources effectively in the infrastructure necessary to promote resilience in drylands areas, otherwise communities will never be strong enough to cope when times are hard. We cannot continue to neglect these areas. We must find ways to maximize their economic potential and support their traditional agricultural and pastoral methods.
We must also focus on the most vulnerable in our communities. During last year’s food crisis in my region, just as in any major crisis, women and children bore the brunt of the shortages. Out of the 12 million people affected, an estimated 360,000 of them were pregnant women. Mothers are the first to sacrifice feeding themselves to feed their children, and with so many cows and goats dying without water, poor milk supplies left over 2 million children malnourished and struggling to survive.
There is a lot more I could say and a lot more we can do and will need to do, but for now my only hope is that you will keep from making the same mistakes as me. I also hope that I will be able to apply the lessons I learned last year and when (not if) the next drought comes, my people won’t suffer as much as they did in 2011.
Wishing you all the best,
Horn of Africa