Sat, Jul 30, 2011 - Page 9 News List

Aid caravan to the Horn of Africa arrives too late, once more

Without tackling the political complications that influence the distribution of food aid, famines will remain difficult both to prevent and to manage properly

By Barry Malone  /  Reuters, EL ADOW, KENYA

A suited UN official wearing well-buffed shoes crouches in the orange dust near a cluster of huts in northern Kenyan and, as his tie wafts in the breeze, raises an iPad and carefully films the rotting carcass of a cow.

Since drought gripped the Horn of Africa, and especially since famine was declared in parts of Somalia, the international aid industry has swept in and out of refugee camps and remote hamlets in branded planes and snaking lines of white SUVs.

This humanitarian, diplomatic and media circus is necessary every time people go hungry in Africa, analysts say, because governments — both African and foreign — rarely respond early enough to looming catastrophes.

Combine that with an often simplistic explanation of the causes of famine and a growing band of aid critics say parts of Africa are doomed to a never-ending cycle of ignored early warnings, media appeals and emergency UN feeding — rather than a transition to lasting self-sufficiency.

“Although humanitarian agencies are gearing themselves up to mount a response, it is far too late to address anything but the worst symptoms,” Simon Levine, an analyst at the Overseas Development Institute think tank, wrote on its Web site. “Measures that could have kept animals alive — providing milk and income to buy food — would have been much cheaper than feeding malnourished children, but the time for those passed with very little investment.”

The drought gripping the region straddling Somalia, Kenya and Ethiopia is the worst for 60 years, some aid groups say, and it is affecting more than 12 million people. In the worst-hit area in Somalia, 3.7 million people are at risk of starvation.

“It seems once again that slow onset disasters don’t get attention until they become critical,” a senior humanitarian adviser at a UN agency in the region said.

“One can understand this with rapid onset disasters as they come out of the blue, but drought ... we’ve seen it before and we will again,” said the official, who declined to be named.

The man filming the dead cow with an iPad was just one in a series of incongruous episodes when the director of the UN food agency, Josette Sheeran, flew for a day-trip to a small village and the world’s biggest refugee camp in Dadaab to see how her organization is delivering emergency food.

Sheeran posed awkwardly next to the dead carcasses, an uneasy almost-smile on her lips as her staff snapped away with cameras and phones, watched by bemused locals.

Officials then had stilted conversations with refugees used to answering questions from Western aid workers who come with sometimes sympathetic nods, always promising that they can make things better.

“While international NGOs can be very active around humanitarian response, many of them don’t have a long-term development strategy for these areas,” Andrew Catley, an expert on the Horn of Africa at the Feinstein International Center at Tufts University, said.

Reporters accompanied Sheeran, knowing they might need the iconic, loathed-by-Africans footage of the most emaciated babies they could find to get air time, or chance upon the “haunted” mother with the most dead children.

However, for many analysts the story being told in the Horn of Africa by the humanitarian and media caravan is simplistic and misleading.

There is clearly a drought, they say, but the reason tens of thousands of people are leaving their homes in search of food is also because a festering insurgency in Somalia — along with the forced recruitment of youths — is making things worse.

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