We Were Warned: Unlearned Lessons of Famine in the Horn of Africa

Halakhe, A.
Publication language
Date published
01 Dec 2022
Lessons papers
Drought, Food security, Response and recovery, Learning and evaluation of similar crises
Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya
Refugees International

Almost 40 million people in Somalia, Ethiopia, and Kenya face an unprecedented food and nutrition emergency. This crisis is driven by five failed or below-average rainy seasons and a looming sixth in 2023. In Somalia and Ethiopia, the rain failure is exacerbated by protracted conflict. The region has also suffered from the negative impact of COVID-19 and the Russia-Ukraine war. Many of the countries in the region are net food importers, and the Ukraine crisis has led to an increase in the price of food. In a region where most rely on rain-fed agriculture and pastoralism, cyclic drought has eroded community resilience, leading to a grim humanitarian crisis.

Poor funding is hampering efforts by humanitarian groups to address the crisis. As a result, some groups have resorted to making painful choices of “taking the food from the mouths of hungry people to the mouths of starving people.” According to the World Food Program in Somalia, 7.1 million people face acute food insecurity, and 213,000 people are facing catastrophic hunger levels. In Kenya, Somalia, and Ethiopia, 7.46 million children under the age of five are estimated to face acute malnutrition, including 1.85 million facing severe malnutrition. Regional governments and international donors know how to respond to the drought but have failed to apply lessons from the past. Indeed, the current crisis echoes the devastating 2011-2012 famine in Somalia when over a quarter million people died, half of whom were children under the age of five. By the time famine was declared, half of the people experiencing famine had died.

Donors, humanitarian agencies, and the governments of Kenya, Somalia, and Ethiopia learned hard lessons from the famine and adopted a “No Regret” funding posture during the region’s ensuing 2017-18 drought. They did not wait for the formal declaration of famine to upscale their aid delivery to people in need and deferred to quick, on-the-ground expertise in their field offices rather than onerous decisions from headquarters at key moments. Ultimately, they saved many lives and livelihoods. Today, these hard-learned lessons have failed to hold. For over a year, there has been a sustained early warning of a new drought and its consequences for the Horn of Africa. However, those warnings have yet to trigger a response that matches the scale of need. If urgent actions are not taken, history is set to repeat itself on an even larger scale. This does not have to be the case. Lives and livelihoods can still be saved.