The need for disaster prophylaxis – managing the risk, not the crisis

Debbie Hillier of Oxfam reports on the findings of a report into the response to the Horn Of Africa disaster, the east Africa food crisis drought.


Debbie Hillier is a humanitarian policy adviser for Oxfam

The international response to drought is almost always too little too late – this was certainly the case in the Horn of Africa, whose recent crisis was predicted but not prevented. This resulted in the suffering of millions, and the deaths of thousands, with higher impacts on women who generally eat last and least.

Late response is also costly.

One estimate from a previous drought in west Africa put the cost of preventing a child suffering malnutrition at $1 per day, compared to $80 per day for treating acute malnutrition and saving that child’s life.

The UN’s appeal for the Horn crisis was $2.4 billion.

That such a large sum was needed for such a large need is not in doubt, but what is also not in doubt is that at least part of this cost was because the international response to the crisis – clearly predicted from November 2010 – was so late.

As Figure 1 shows, major funding was only received from July onwards, after major media coverage of the suffering and after the UN declared a famine in Somalia.

Figure 1:

The UK was very generous – providing $125 million and intense diplomatic effort on other countries to fund the crisis. However, the vast majority of this funding was sent after July.

Earlier response would have been more effective and much cheaper – and would have made real a key goal of the UK’s new humanitarian policy – to strengthen anticipation of disasters and early action.

More fundamentally, the solution to situations of chronic food insecurity will not be found in humanitarian response, but in reducing people’s vulnerability to drought.  Disaster risk reduction – the approach of systematically analysing and reducing risk – is critical for regions such as the Horn of Africa.

But in practice, too often development work is not disaster-proofed and its monitoring and evaluation does not consider risk reduction. And disaster risk reduction is abysmally funded; according to the Global Humanitarian Assistance report, DRR represents a mere 0.5% of total overseas aid.

Early response and disaster risk reduction are both effective and cost effective. Self-evidently and empirically, prevention is better than cure. Insurance and vaccination – paying upfront to prevent subsequent high losses – is accepted as responsible risk management and this principle must now be applied decisively to disasters.

Otherwise both the human and financial cost of disasters will continue to be unacceptably high.

Download the Oxfam and Save the Children publication “A Dangerous Delay: the cost of late response to early warnings in the 2011 drought in the Horn of Africa” (pdf), published 18th January 2012

See also:

East Africa food crisis could have been preventedKaty Wright, July 22nd 2011

East Africa famine: We need funds now, and to deal with underlying problemsKatherine Nightingale, July 22nd 2011

DEC step up East Africa food crisis campaignShamik Das, July 10th 2011

Disasters Emergency Committee needs to start coordinating Africa crisis responseLord Avebury, July 7th 2011

Other nations need to follow Britain’s lead to avert disaster in AfricaDavid Taylor, July 6th 2011

World should have acted faster to tackle East Africa food crisisRichard Miller, July 5th 2011

Look Left – Up to 10 million face starvation in Horn of AfricaShamik Das, July 3rd 2011

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by becoming a Left Foot Forward Supporter today.