By Mark Tran
The politics of aid can delay early intervention, despite last year's famine in Somalia showing early aid can achieve more
A recent briefing paper by the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) succinctly sums up the frustration of humanitarian groups as they grapple with the food crisis in the Sahel, where 18 million people are at risk from hunger.
"Early warning [already launched by the FAO in October] was not followed by early funding and response. Only rapid action would prevent further deterioration of the food security situation and avoid a full-scale crisis," said the FAO.
Like last year's famine in Somalia, the Sahel is a crisis foretold. Senior humanitarian officials such as the EU's Kristalina Georgieva began sounding the alarm at least as far back as in December 2011. Like others – such as NGOs in the Sahel working group – she has argued that early preventive measures are not just the right thing to do, but also cost less than spending on a full-blown emergency. She also expressed frustration at the inability of the world to react until the "CNN effect" – pictures of starving children on TV – kicks in.
Yet early, timely action seems to be an insurmountable barrier despite all the lessons learned and all the studies and reports on slow onset emergencies.
Rob Bailey, senior research fellow at Chatham House, the international affairs thinktank in London, argues that postmortems into such crises typically focus on technical solutions. "If only co-ordination had been better", is one stock response – but Bailey says this technocratic line of argument misses some fundamental truths. First, the humanitarian system is stacked against early action because of the incentives and the decision-making process in place. Second, early action depends ultimately on political considerations.
One problem, according to Bailey, is that on-the-ground experts monitoring the onset of emergencies do not call the shots. That responsibility lies in capitals or the headquarters of UN agencies, although where it is located precisely is hard to detect.
"Decisions are passed around, lots of emails are flowing, but no one is accountable," says Bailey, adding that those in headquarters face different pressures from those in the field.
Those who make the decisions are under domestic pressure to ensure that taxpayer money is well spent, especially at a time of belt-tightening at home. They have a difficult case to make arguing that bad things will happen unless money is spent now. And the uncomfortable truth is that there is no downside to delay, given the lack of accountability.
Bailey suggests that early warning providers such as FewsNet, the US famine early warning system – which issued dozens of alerts before famine was declared in Somalia in July 2011 – build into their warnings forecasts for malnutrition and mortality. That would give decision-makers the necessary political cover for early intervention.
And politics is the trump card. Citing Somalia, Bailey notes that anti-terror laws in the US resulted in a drop in humanitarian activity in Somalia as NGOs feared prosecution if their aid supplies ended up in the hands of al-Shabaab, the Islamist insurgents that controlled swaths of the country.
He also cites contrasting responses to hunger in Ethiopia within the space of three years. In 2000, donors were reluctant to provide assistance out of a sense of frustration with Addis Ababa as the country was locked in a border war with Eritrea. In 2003, however, the US was quicker to respond as Ethiopia was seen as a strategic ally in the "war of terror", following the 11 September attacks in 2001. "Incentives matter, but politics matters more," says Bailey.
He acknowledges that governments are more aware than ever of the need to build long-term thinking into emergency responses. Increasingly, officials such as Georgieva and Andrew Mitchell, the UK's international development secretary, stress the need for "resilience", a buzzword in development.
Affected countries such as Ethiopia have introduced early response measures – such as its productive safety net programme that delivers cash and food to rural Ethiopians, although it has been criticised as being politicised. Niger is investing heavily in food security. But Bailey thinks the effort to bridge the divide between humanitarian and development aid is only just beginning, and that the political momentum needs to be maintained.