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Responses to the Drought in the Greater Horn of Africa

Time (GMT +01) 11:30 13:30


Dr Sara Pantuliano, Research Fellow, Humanitarian Policy Group, ODI

Jeremy Swift
, Pastoralism expert & formerly Professor, IDS, University of Sussex
Maurice Herson, Senior Projects Manager, ALNAP, ODI


Simon Maxwell, Director, ODI

The meeting was chaired by Simon Maxwell, ODI Director, and began with a presentation from Sara Pantuliano, Research Fellow in the Humanitarian Policy Group at ODI. Jeremy Swift (formerly of IDS) and Maurice Herson, Senior Project Manager at ALNAP provided responses before the meeting was opened for discussion.

Sara Pantuliano's presentation focused on critical gaps in the response to the drought in the Greater Horn of Africa. Her presentation started by showing that early warning in this emergency was timely and largely accurate and called for food aid as well as crucial interventions to be implemented to protect livestock in order to save lives and livelihoods in the medium to long-term. Although livelihoods interventions were central to responses from actors with long-term presence, the main emergency response was mounted much later and was dominated by food aid. Thus despite good early warning and calls for livelihoods interventions, the overall emergency response was still largely built around food aid.

Pantuliano then focused on the reasons why the overall emergency response only began reaching full capacity as the window of opportunity to protect livelihoods assets was closing and why the responses were so skewed towards food aid. The first reason identified was 'inadequate preparedness', including limited national drought preparedness plans. The second reason identified was inadequate leadership by international and national actors to meaningfully shape the overall response in favour of livelihoods interventions. Another reason for the skewed response was the weakness in livelihoods response capacity in the face of a well developed and understood emergency food assistance system. Adequate funding for livelihoods interventions was not forthcoming due to inadequate contingency funds, donor funding cycles and competing crises. One exception was the new CERF which proved valuable as a swift funding instrument for critical non-food interventions, though it arrived late in this instance.

Pantuliano concluded by noting that pastoralism remains largely misunderstood despite significant academic and practical research showing it is a viable and appropriate long term use of natural resources. In the immediate future, there is a continued need for investment in livelihoods support and recovery activities. For the longer term, increased attention as a result of this crisis provides an opportunity to invest in preparedness, technical capacity and contingency funds.

Jeremy Swift focused on the local drought relief model in Kenya and provided a historical perspective on drought contingency planning. Since drought contingency planning first began in Kenya in the mid-1980s there have been three key areas that underpin the system. The first element is early warning that is derived from the knowledge and experience of pastoralists as well as the technical expertise of FEWSNET and others. The second element is contingency planning at the district level that includes a set of activities that can be implemented as soon as there is early warning of drought. The third component is contingency funds, which is the part that never happened at a local district level.

Unfortunately, contingency planning in Northern Kenya tends to be formulaic and poor. As a result, donors and the government do not have confidence in the contingency plans. Contingency planning and capacity needs to be improved and contingency funding needs to be available to enable experimentation with responses to build capacity. Unless contingency funds are available at the local government level nothing will happen. We also need to have a better understanding of how the Kenyan model is working (or not working), as donors are supporting the establishment of similar models in Ethiopia, Mongolia, and China. We need to know if we are supporting the right model.

Maurice Herson began by reflecting that the presentation demonstrated that in comparison to how agencies responded to droughts 20 years ago there has been some progress towards better balancing livelihoods and food aid interventions. However, it remains unclear why some agencies have learned and others have not. Why is it that some agencies revert to default food-aid responses? The challenge for us is to identify how we as humanitarian actors can learn from what individual agencies are doing well. How do we generalise for the humanitarian sector as a whole from specific good individual agency practices? It also seems that livelihoods for humanitarians is not seen as an emergency response - how do we get better as a sector at implementing livelihoods interventions without losing our 'emergency' focus? Finally, our business is very top-down and the lack of local involvement identified in the briefing was very depressing. Our responses are still very supply driven (availability of food) and do not take into account local perspectives. Perhaps a better understanding of local perspectives would lead to more answers about how we respond more appropriately with livelihood interventions.

The discussion began by focusing on issues of political will and governance. A participant argued that agencies know the technical answers to responding to drought in the short and longer term, but the issue is weak governance and lack of political will. Without good governance contingency planning and funding will not work. Another participant commented that there is a 'mind-set' opposed to pastoralism that needs to be addressed. In Tanzania the word 'pastoralist' cannot be mentioned in government/policy circles as there is a huge bias against pastoralism. In Ethiopia there have been positive attempts to tackle this 'mind-set' problem in government and donor circles through the provision of training courses for decision makers. Such initiatives to ensure that decision makers are better informed is part of the solution to the political marginalisation of pastoralists. The panelists stressed that a lot of decision makers do not understand the political economy of pastoralism and are not aware of the crucial economic role of pastoralism for their economies. Moreover, the policies of national governments have decreased the access pastoralists have to water and land, which undermines access to tradition reserves to migrate to in times of hardship. The reality is that if you do not have conducive policies that enable pastoralist to use their environment appropriately you will continue to have an increase in emergencies as a result of drought.

Another participant raised the issue of agencies promoting food aid as an appropriate intervention for livelihoods support. Food aid provided on a large scale and to the general population has been seen as a way of enabling communities to protect their own assets and thus their livelihoods. The problem has been that as a sector we have been promoting food aid without knowing if it supports livelihoods. The issue of social-safety nets as an alternate intervention was mentioned.

The divide between relief and development actors was discussed with particular emphasis on the need for looking at not just the failure of humanitarian responses but also development approaches. Perhaps we need longer-term funding for longer-term social safety-nets, and not just contingency planning and funds. As has already been noted for longer-term development to be appropriate governance issues also need to be addressed. In this regard, better targeting advocacy message at the right actors to ensure longer-term and more flexible funding is available for agencies to implement development programmes that can be scaled up and down in response to emergencies might be part of the solution. The panelists commented that again the question for the sector is how do we learn from appropriate scaling-up from specific agencies in response to emergencies and make this the standard for other agencies.

The chair asked the panelists and participants do we need WFP or do we need a UN relief agency and not a food agency? Does this explain part of the reason why the UN response is so focused on food? Also what are the incentives within organisations that encourage cooperation between humanitarian and development components? Pantuliano commented that in eastern Sudan WFP is asking itself what is its future. There has been an emergency operation in eastern Sudan for twenty years with very little change in response, while the outcome from the response is very questionable. Emergency responses have been poorly targeted and have not worked with pastoralist economies. UN agencies like governments and donors need to understand pastoralism and work with pastoralists rather than just through their default response mechanisms. In this regard, Swift commented that the reality is that food is available and cash isn't, and so agencies try to think of innovative ways of using food. However, part of the problem is agency politics within the UN.

Herson argued that humanitarian agencies are not sophisticated at changing approaches. We have evaluations, but we need to go beyond these. We have Real Time Evaluations (RTE), which take place during an emergency and involve both evaluation and monitoring techniques. There is also growing interest in joint evaluations, which enables us to look at issues at a more macro-level, and hopefully feed into policy development more easily. The big issue though is 'utilisation' - how we actually use the findings from evaluations - and we need to understand why we don't as a sector use evaluation findings very well. A final point is that donors do not like innovation; they are inherently conservative, and pull agencies back from taking risks and trying new approaches.

Participants noted that in terms of incentives within organisations to cooperate there are institutional constraints that need to be acknowledged. The relief and development divide is real. This is partly about different 'cultures' and 'perceptions' of each other and different ways of operating. The association between chronic vulnerability and development and acute vulnerability and humanitarianism needs to be broken for more integrated responses and institutional structures to be developed. Pantuliano concluded by noting that learning from both systems needs to be incorporated into our activities, and that change does start from within institutions.


The current crisis in the Greater Horn of Africa region has been characterised as of ‘pervasive pre-famine conditions’ with the potential for widespread famine in pastoral areas. A massive emergency response has been mounted in the region aimed at saving lives and reducing further destitution. ODI has analysed the challenges and constraints to integrating non-food assistance into this response. The analysis reviewed the extent of non-food programming in this crisis and considered why the scale of these interventions has been so modest.

At this meeting, ODI’s Humanitarian Policy Group (HPG) discussed its analysis of the humanitarian response to the drought which it published in a recent Briefing Note. This meeting included a short presentation of HPG’s analysis and was then opened up for discussion and debate.