Global Policy Forum

Africa’s Latest Food Crisis Needs a Long-Term Strategy


The Horn of Africa is experiencing its worst drought in six decades due to changing global weather patterns. Harvests have failed and food prices have skyrocketed in the past few months. It is estimated that over 10 million are currently suffering from food insecurity and rainfall is predicted to be insufficient in the coming years. These changes are expected to have dire effects on the region and NGOs that currently provide short-term emergency relief are working towards creating long-term solutions. Lack of access to markets, soil erosion and land tenure are a few of the problems which, if addressed, will make people less likely to be affected by droughts and failed harvests in the future. There must be a push to find political solutions at a national level and an international commitment to address climate change in order to create a more food secure world.

By Liz Ford


July 4, 2011

A "toxic mix" of drought, failed harvests and rising food prices have brought severe food shortages to the east and the Horn of Africa.

As a result, the UN office for the co-ordination of humanitarian affairs (OCHA) predicts that around 10 million people in parts of Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, Uganda and Djibouti will face chronic shortages and be in need of humanitarian assistance.

The UK's Department for International Development (DfID) has already promised the World Food Programme £38m for its work in Ethiopia, and NGOs, including Save the Children UK, Oxfam and Christian Aid, have already launched emergency appeals.

However, the short-term emergency relief work has to be backed up with longer-term strategies to enable people in these regions to cope when shocks such as drought and failed harvests occur, says Nigel Harris, CEO of the NGO Farm-Africa.

"Our role is longer-term development partners, but we know that in this situation you need short and long-term solutions," says Harris. "Emergency providers are vital... but this can't be a permanent solution."

Changes to weather patterns in recent years have meant many farmers in east Africa are increasingly unable to predict when, or if, the rainy season will begin, and when the rains do come, whether there will be too little or too much rainfall – either way can have devastating consequences. Farmers have to be supported to adapt to a rapidly changing environment, says Harris.

Farm-Africa is working with communities in Kenya to advise on which crops to plant, for example, encouraging farmers to move away from maize, which doesn't grow well with too little or too much water, to millet, sorghum or pigeon peas, which are more resilient. Or encouraging schools to install rain harvesting tanks and repair existing water sources. The NGO is also introducing drip irrigation schemes in Ethiopia to ensure water is better directed to the root of the crop to avoid the loss of excess water.

But, as Claire Hancock, Tearfund's disaster management project officer for east and central Africa, says: "You can't forget this is sub-Saharan Africa, which is a challenging environment and this is going to keep happening for some of these people. And with climate change this is going to happen more frequently and will be worse each time."

As well as two successive bad harvests in the region, food price rises and climate change, Hancock says it is important to look at the wider issues – such as access to markets, and soil erosion and land tenure – which, if addressed, could make farmers more food secure. Tearfund works in many communities where farmers and pastoralists do not have sufficient access to land or land tenure and some Tearfund partners in some countries are lobbying for this to change.

The NGO is joining a growing number of organisations pushing for an international commitment to address climate change concerns, but it is also encouraging its partners on the ground to press national governments to address the particular concerns of the communities in which they work.

"Nationally, we are really led by the partners we work with to advocate on the issues facing the communities in which they are working."

But political solutions also need to be found to improve people's life chances, particularly in Somalia. Ongoing fighting in the country has reduced people's ability to cope with disaster.

"Where there's conflict, you don't have stable communities," says Paul O'Brien, overseas director of Concern Worldwide, which has been working in Somalia for 25 years. He says people in the country have been "knocked-out" by conflict and have lost the capacity to grow food or feed their families sufficiently. "The conflict needs to be addressed and it has not been addressed. It's a very difficult thing to do."

Concern has been using remittance systems in Somalia to transfer cash donations of $50, and more recently $100 to meet the cost of rising food prices, to people in need, enabling them to "go about their business" and access food. As is often the case in times of severe food shortages, it is not an absence of food that causes the problem, but rather access to it. Poor people are unable to access food, says O'Brien. Many people in the dry, arid regions hit by the drought have seen their animals die because of a lack of water, which means they no longer have them to sell when times become hard.

O'Brien says there is no silver bullet to solve the problems in the region. "For us, it's about saving lives and easing suffering. We are expecting a dire situation for a number of months."


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