Barbara Stocking: The cycle of disaster-aid-disaster-aid must be broken

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All too familiar pictures of hunger in the Horn of Africa have returned to our screens as recurrent drought, soaring food prices, conflict, and entrenched poverty leave 12 million people across Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya without enough food and water to live.

Rainfall has been exceptionally low and as the region enters the three-month dry period, with malnutrition already widespread, there is a real risk of large-scale loss of life. The prices of staple foods such as rice and maize are at record levels in many areas, while the value of livestock, many people's main asset, has plummeted. The deaths of hundreds of thousands of animals leave many unable to provide for their families.

Dealing with the immediate crisis, the lack of food and water, will be immensely challenging and requires a rapid injection of emergency relief. That is why the Disasters Emergency Committee has launched its appeal. But we urgently need to break the cycle of emergency response, which leaves donors and affected communities limping from one crisis to the next.

Several years of inadequate rainfall has meant low crop yields and weakened herds. Pasture, grazing land and migration routes that semi-nomadic herders have traditionally used in times of emergency have been sold off, or allocated for tourism, or national parks. Pastoralists have suffered years of neglect through lack of investment in basic services, such as education, animal health and improving roads that help them to get to market. More live in poverty today than did a decade ago. And many of the 300,000 people in refugee camps in Kenya have fled both war and hunger in Somalia.

It is no coincidence that many of the worst affected areas are also some of the poorest, least developed and most neglected parts of the region. A sustainable solution to the precarious lives and livelihoods of people in these regions requires long-term investment by national governments, to provide a social safety net when natural conditions worsen. Without such welfare programmes already in operation in Ethiopia, another 8 million people would be in need of emergency assistance.

Over the coming decades, unless urgent action is taken to slash greenhouse gas emissions, temperatures will continue to rise and rainfall patterns will change. Much of East Africa may experience a 20 per cent decline in the length of the growing period for key crops. Productivity in maize could fall by nearly 20 per cent and beans by nearly 50 per cent.

Providing access to better seeds, creating markets or immunising livestock are hugely cost-effective for both governments and donors when set against the cost of responding to an emergency. But it requires donors to change their thinking, to greatly increase aid to agriculture.

In a pilot run by the World Food Programme, 85,000 tons of food bought from 67,000 Ethiopian farmers over the next five years will feed fellow Ethiopians – strengthening local farming and nourishing those unable to feed themselves.

But donors are more willing to respond to disasters than to spend money reducing the risk that they will occur. Unless that changes, we are likely to see future humanitarian emergencies in the Horn of Africa on our TV screens before too long. And as the donor community once again scrambles to respond, it will be in the uncomfortable knowledge that with earlier action the worst of the crisis might have been averted.

Dame Barbara Stocking is chief executive of Oxfam

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