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We can prevent famine if we heed the warnings

In The Sydney Morning Herald, 27 January 2012

Six months ago, the UN declared a famine — defined as more than 30 per cent of children acutely malnourished, and a death rate exceeding two deaths per 10,000 people per day — in five regions in southern Somalia. This was the first such UN declaration in 30 years. Now, despite ongoing and substantial international intervention, the death toll stands at tens of thousands, and more than 250,000 Somalis remain at risk of starvation. The UN appeal remains woefully under-funded.

On the other side of the continent, the Niger government has warned that by early 2012, as many as a million of its people may be suffering from severe food insecurity. Poor harvests late last year have caused food prices to rocket at a time when they would normally be at their lowest. The price of millet, a major food source in arid and semi-arid regions of the world, has risen by nearly 50 per cent in the just the past few months; there is a national cereal deficit of more than half a million tonnes; and late last year 13 per cent of the population was already acutely malnourished.
Why is it that in East and West Africa alike we are so often responding to crises — whether as a response to early warning, or (more often) after a crisis has already escalated far beyond the point at which we should have done something? What should we be doing to ensure that we are not always responding to new crises, wherever they occur, with emergency food assistance year after year?

Some answers to these questions are given in the Charter to End Extreme Hunger — a document initiated by Save the Children and other aid agencies, that outlines key ways to prevent future food crises. Launched last year, it calls for governments to take action on supporting local food production, protecting the poorest, making food affordable, improving the emergency aid system and reducing conflict. It has received high-profile support, including from UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos, and its aims have been backed by the governments of Kenya, Norway and the UK.

As the Charter outlines, preventing hunger crises is partly about responding better to early warnings. It is well acknowledged, including by the Australian government, that the current crisis in the Horn of Africa took no one by surprise — nor will that in Niger if the worst predictions are borne out. The international community had the information and analysis needed to respond in a timely manner, but no substantial response was launched until the crisis reached tipping point around July.

But it is also about what we do to strengthen the resilience of vulnerable communities, not just when we are called upon to respond to early warnings, but all the time. And while there is a lot of work to be done to better understand the way in which life in the dry-lands in the Horn of Africa is changing, and how best to support small-scale food producers, by and large we do have the information, technology, resources and understanding we need to support communities throughout Africa to better withstand droughts when they occur. So how do we do this?

As an absolute priority, when we are not responding to crisis we should work with national governments and communities to promote resilient, adaptive livelihoods — including by supporting small-scale food producers, and helping communities and governments better manage natural resources. With the frequency and intensity of droughts and floods expected to increase over the coming decades, this is all the more important. We can work with governments to create social safety nets, which help poor to accumulate savings so that in times of drought they are not forced to sell what little they have, such as livestock, in order to survive. And we can support national governments to scale up their emergency food reserves, so that in times of global economic uncertainty, they are better equipped to prevent food prices spiralling out of reach of poor people.

The Australian government has made a commendable commitment to promoting food security in Africa, including $142 million in aid for the current crisis, and the recent establishment of the Australian International Food Security Centre. But it is a co-ordinated, international effort that is required — a robust financial and political commitment from the international community to ensuring that even in the face of increasing droughts and floods, never again do we need to talk about famine.

Events this month like the African Union summit in Addis Ababa, and the World Economic Forum in Davos, offer timely opportunities for world leaders to reflect on lessons learned from the Horn. Governments should endorse the Charter to End Extreme Hunger and act on its recommendations. They should ensure that, as Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd pledged last year, we "build on lessons learned, turn the page, and put famine where it belongs — in the history books".

Gareth Evans is a former Australian Foreign Minister and President Emeritus of the International Crisis Group.


Link to article: http://www.smh.com.au/opinion/politics/we-can-prevent-famine-if-we-heed-the-warnings-20120127-1ql78.html#ixzz1l4p1agwf