Scientists issued warnings about the famine in the Horn of Africa as early as 2010. Their early warning system is funded by the international community, which ignores its findings.
It was late July, 2011, when the first plane carrying food aid finally touched down in the Somalian capital Mogadishu. Ten tons of emergency supplies for 3,500 of the most acutely affected children were on board.
Weeks and weeks of wrangling preceded this moment, not just over securing aid pledges, but also over gaining access to some of the worst-hit famine regions in the south of Somalia.
But eight months before these talks began, the first credible warnings of an impending, serious famine in the Horn of Africa had already emerged. One of the agencies leading the alarm calls was the Washington-based Famine Early Warning Systems Network, better known as Fewsnet. This organization, which is funded by the US Agency for International Development, issued its first warning in the autumn of 2010 - showing color-coded maps of Africa with ever-growing red areas, the shade used to indicate an "emergency" on their five-step sliding scale, one step away from "catastrophe/famine."
Fewsnet was set up in response to the famine in Ethiopia in the 1980s. Some 50 employees - most of them in Africa - collate various climate data, which is then analyzed to estimate key factors like grain yields and fresh water availability.
Early warnings, late reactions
Countries like Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya were all listed on Fewsnet's website as danger-zones in August and September of 2010, and updates on the situation have been made since then.
But the 25-year-old organization's warnings have done little to prevent millions of people in the Horn of Africa from again suffering an acute shortage of food. Fewsnet often points out that it is responsible for analyzing data and offering timely warnings, not for organizing a political or humanitarian response.
Therein lies the system's flaw: Even when the warnings are punctually submitted, those responsible for acting on the information debate, hesitate and sometimes stagnate.
Oxfam, which has been active in Africa's hunger hotspots for decades, is an aid organization that's particularly critical of the response network.
"As aid providers, we need to react more quickly. We should react to the early warnings before a crisis hits, then we might be able to prevent it from happening," Oxfam's humanitarian policy adviser, Debbie Hillier, told Deutsche Welle. Hillier said that the earliest response is usually something between risk assessment and wishful thinking that might be summarized as follows: "Hopefully the rains will come after all, and then everything will be fine."
Aid organizations are in a tricky position on such issues. On the one hand, donors are rarely moved to contribute until it's too late - until TV cameras have shown tragic footage of starving families and filthy drinking water. But the alternative is appealing forcefully for aid before this "evidence" has emerged, which often triggers accusations of overreacting or inciting panic.
The world's readiness to help raise more money for the Horn of Africa as another crisis approaches is currently very low. Insiders refer to the phenomenon as "donor fatigue." It was clear to see this summer as the early famine warning translated into physical reactions that were sluggish, at best.
The chance to nip the crisis in the bud in its early stages came - and went. When the famine first came to light, Brazil donated more than France and Germany combined. Former colonial master Italy saw fit to arrange a donor's conference for at-risk Somalia, but then didn't donate a single cent itself.
Then again, a portion of the blame for this donor fatigue must be attributed to actors within the affected countries. Somalia's chronically weak Transitional Federal Government lacks the power and political will to act on such early warnings. Meanwhile, the Islamist al-Shabab militias - the real rulers of Somalia's worst-hit southern regions - have been using the famine as a political weapon.
In the case of Kenya and Ethiopia, many of the people suffering most profoundly are of Somali ethnicity; a poorly-represented minority with only very weak lobbying powers in their respective capital cities. The Ethiopian government has begun throwing aid agencies out of Somali-dominated regions, where it has been militarily active for years.
For Ethiopian President Meles Zenawi the latest famine is a particularly big setback. He recently promised the electorate that the country would be fully self-sufficient in terms of food production within five years; now he is again requesting international food aid.
Hunger has been one of the biggest threats to leaders in the region for decades; Ethiopian Emperor Hailie Selassie fell from power in the 1970s due to an officially underplayed famine in the country.
Only a matter of time
A further complication can be found in academia: Scientists have bickered over the definition and indicators of famine for years, and some of these debates are ongoing. However, those responsible for issuing the warnings are nearing a unified set of criteria - one positive sign for more coordinated and timely future responses.
One thing is certain: There will be another major famine in the Horn of Africa, sooner rather than later. The old climate cycles of the last century, when a drought could be expected in the region roughly once a decade, seem obsolete. The ever-shortening intervals between extreme weather cycles and crop failures mean that flora and fauna alike have less and less time to recuperate and prepare.
The only solution is to attack famine at its roots. These include the political marginalization of livestock farmers, the lack of infrastructure, education and market access. The early warners at Fewsnet in Washington caution on their website that they can only sound the alarm, they have "no influence" on the political reaction on the ground.
And on the ground, the TV crews have already packed up and left the Horn of Africa - the crisis, however, is ongoing. The first substantial harvest is not expected until August of 2012. Meanwhile, torrential rains and resultant illnesses like cholera will likely claim many more victims among those already debilitated by a lack of food.
These dire weather forecasts, incidentally, have also been public knowledge for months.
Author: Ludger Schadomsky / msh
Editor: Nancy Isenson