Disasters Emergency Committee needs to start coordinating Africa crisis response

Why hasn’t the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) stepped in and done more to coordinate the UK response to the Horn of Africa food crisis, asks Lord Avebury.

Lord Avebury is co-chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Global Action Against Childhood Pneumonia (APPGGAACP)

We have seen this week an all too familiar and tragic picture unfolding in the Horn of Africa as drought and famine threaten the region.

Millions of people are without water and food; families and children in Kenya and Somalia are walking miles a day in search of basic provisions and the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has stated that refugee camps are hugely overcrowded.

The largest refugee camp in the world at Dadaab in Kenya, has received another 61,000 starving human beings since the start of 2011 and is now home to 370,000 Somalis. With the situation worsening, Oxfam has started its largest ever appeal for Africa and Save the Children is actively raising money in its own East Africa Appeal.

Both agencies have confirmed the severity of the crisis, with Save the Children reporting that millions of children across the region are in danger of becoming seriously malnourished, which could have a lasting effect on their development and the possibility of many thousands of deaths.

With so many lives on the line, why hasn’t the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) stepped in and done more? Their job is to coordinate the response of 13 of the UK’s most influential charities, as well as representatives from the corporate and public broadcasting world with the aim of providing an effective and timely relief to people most in need.

The trigger is that the disaster must be on a scale and of such urgency as to call for swift humanitarian assistance, obviously the case here.

Most recently, DEC was involved in fundraising for the Pakistan Flood Appeal and successfully helped around 1.2 million people in the affected areas. In East Africa, the number of people needing help is at least 10 million, not counting Somalia, at present inaccessible to relief agencies, though Al Shabab has said it will let them in.

DEC agencies are “in a position to provide assistance”, because they are already on the ground, and there are “reasonable grounds for concluding that a public appeal would be successful”, the other criteria that have to be satisfied before they launch an appeal. Oxfam, Save the Children, the British Red Cross and Merlin have all launched separate emergency appeals to cope with a crisis which has been labelled the “gravest threat of famine in years”; only the coordination that should have been provided by DEC is lacking.

At question time in the Lords yesterday Baroness Tonge asked international development minister Baroness Verma what the government was doing to provide relief for the people of the region. Baroness Verma told her that on July 3rd we had announced “significant funding for the World Food Programme to help feed 1.3 million people in Ethiopia”, with “additional responses… rapidly being prepared for Somalia and Kenya”. So far, so good.

But I asked Baroness Verma what she and the government could do to encourage the wider and more effective coordination of voluntary agencies to this and other emergencies that DEC had failed to provide. The Minister agreed that we need better coordination and added that we are working closely with our former colleague Baroness Amos, now UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator.

Valerie Amos, born in Guyana, was an effective Minister for International Development and Leader of the House in the last government, and it is good to think that ‘one of us’ is playing this crucial role.

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