Reports / Reports

Managing Famine Risk: Linking Early Warning to Early Action

Recurrent food crises are one of the principal impediments to development in the Horn and Sahel regions of Africa. In 2011, a drought-related emergency affected over 12 million people in the Horn – the fourth such event since the turn of the millennium. Precise numbers are unavailable, but estimates indicate that hundreds of thousands of people were displaced and tens of thousands more died. A year later, 18 million people were affected by a major crisis in the Sahel – the third to hit the region in eight years.

Food crises are slow-onset disasters. They emerge over a period of months and are routinely tracked and anticipated by famine early warning systems – specialist units that monitor and forecast risk factors such as food prices, health indicators, rainfall and crop production. These systems provide governments and humanitarian actors with the chance to take early action and prevent the situation from escalating into an emergency. Cost-benefit analyses indicate that, compared with emergency response, early action offers significant cost savings in the long run.

Yet all too often the link between early warning and early action fails and the opportunity to mitigate a gathering crisis is lost. This disconnect was starkly apparent in Somalia during 2010/11, when increasingly urgent early warnings accumulated for 11 months before famine was finally declared in July. Only after that did the humanitarian system mobilize.

Beginning with the failures that allowed the Somalia famine to take place and drawing on the recent history of other early warnings, this report considers in detail the various political, institutional and organizational barriers to translating early warning of famine into early action to avert it, and makes recommendations for how these can be overcome.