East Africa v Ukraine. Two tragedies; two very different responses

May 19, 2022

     By Duncan Green     

There’s sometimes a fine line between ‘what aboutery’ – unhelpfully distracting from one claim for public or policy attention by saying ‘yes, but what about X? – and a genuine exposure of double standards. But when it comes to East Africa right now, it’s not a fine line, but a gulf distinguishing the world’s feeble response from the laudable, (if racially edged), race to help the Ukraine. East Africa is facing its second major famine in a decade, it barely registers in the news, and the international system is failing. Only 3% of the total $4.4bn UN 2022 appeal for Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya had been funded as of 10 May 2022.

Here are some more numbers, from a new Oxfam/Save the Children report:

Dangerous Delay 2 Report

‘In 2011, Somalia experienced a devastating famine that killed over a quarter of a million people – half of them children under five. The international community failed to act in time, despite repeated warnings of an impending crisis. In the wake of the tragedy, leaders in the region made a commitment to end drought emergencies by 2022. The international community sought to ensure there would not be a repeat of the failures that led to famine. Next time the world would heed the warnings and act early, in anticipation, to avoid the crisis.

Yet, just over a decade since the 2011 famine, and despite various alarms and warnings over the past two years, the commitment to anticipatory action has proven half-hearted. We are once again responding too late and with too little to avert the impending crisis. Nearly half a million people across Somalia and parts of Ethiopia are facing famine-like conditions with women being particularly affected. In Kenya, 3.5 million people are suffering extreme hunger, and UN predictions suggest that 350,000 Somali children will die by the summer if governments and donors do not tackle food insecurity immediately. The number of people facing extreme hunger in Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia has more than doubled since last year, from over 10 million to over 23 million people.’

And yet there has been progress in the intervening years

‘Since 2011, emergency cash and voucher assistance have become one of the primary response modalities in the humanitarian sector and shifted the power to choose spending priorities to the individual and household instead of the donor. Cash and voucher assistance support people’s own planning so they can select and prioritise items they need to prepare for shocks and can – if appropriately designed – target the specific needs of women and children. Cash and voucher assistance has also been shown to have a positive impact across a wide range of child development outcomes including nutrition, health, education and child protection.

Governments in Ethiopia and Kenya have established social protection systems and have been expanding the coverage of both the Productive Safety Net Programme and the Hunger Safety Net Programme in the intervening decade to include more households that – previously – had been supported primarily with emergency relief. Once the connection between predictable needs depending on the seasonal performance of the rains and chronic poverty was established it transformed response to acute food insecurity. Social protection systems are in place in all three countries and can expand in response to shocks when properly resourced. At continental level, there was a rapid expansion of social protection between 2010-2015 and all countries now have at least one safety net.’

But now, the extent of the crisis is overtaking these laudable steps forward, and exposing the cracks in the wider system. This is a much broader failure than simply not finding the necessary cash.

‘The failure to accelerate progress on countering climate change and preventing conflict around the world is now perpetuating a system of reliance on humanitarian aid that was not designed – and is not resourced – to respond to cyclical and predictable shocks at such scale. With such rising needs we can no longer afford to wait for emergencies to develop, we must act early and pre-emptively to prevent predictable shocks from turning into crises. This requires far greater collaboration between governments, development, humanitarian, peace and climate actors.’

How did the humanitarian system end up in this mess?

‘The research highlighted the impact of investment of national governments and local administrations in social protection, early warning systems and the role of community members and local organisations in taking anticipatory action. However, the research also showed that governments and international actors are still responding to the impacts of the drought, instead of managing the risk ahead of the drought, and are struggling to take action at sufficient scale in response to early warning information. 

Dehabo Hassan
Dehabo Hassan is a mother of eight and carer for her son who has an intellectual disability. She has lived at the displacement camp in Oog, Somaliland since 2017, when a terrible drought started. [Photo credit: Petterik Wiggers / Oxfam / March2022]

The key findings of the research are not unique to the Horn of Africa. Communities and local actors are always the first to take action to protect their livelihoods and prepare for the impact of drought and floods, but funding to local organisations remains terribly low. Government-led social protection systems designed to protect people from shocks often offer both more cost-effective and earlier response. New initiatives to anticipate the impact of crisis on communities are showing promise but are not financed or integrated within humanitarian, development and climate action at the scale required to protect communities before crisis unfolds.  Entrenched bureaucracies and self-serving political choices – locally, nationally and internationally – also continue to curtail an anticipatory response.

As we move deeper into the climate crisis, shocks from extreme weather and related factors – including the interplay between climate and conflict – will increase further. If current trends continue, the number of disasters per year globally may increase from approximately 400 in 2015 to 560 per year by 2030.A purely responsive system will not be able to prepare or respond to challenges in the years to come.

For the 2022 hunger crisis we have once again been too late for anticipatory action; communities are now in the teeth of the crisis and only urgent funding to the humanitarian response can save lives – but for the next crisis we must do better. The report recommends changes in both the systems around anticipatory action and its finance. This includes more direct funding to local and national organisations, consultation with communities’ leaders, increased coordination between climate, development, government and peace actors, and a significant scale up to shock responsive social protection systems and anticipatory action. Crisis modifiers and contingency budgets must be increased, but also simplified for rapid dispersal of funds. Flexible, reliable, multi-year funding remains key, as does the genuine inclusion of women in decision making on responses at local, national and international levels.’

Short version? There are piles of technically sound, tried and tested proposals for ‘anticipatory action’, ‘early warning systems’ and preventing catastrophe (much cheaper and more effective than waiting for the disaster to occur before responding). The problem lies in the politics, structure and incentives of the humanitarian system – that’s what needs to change, and many, many lives depend on it.

May 19, 2022
Duncan Green


  1. Important blog – thanks Duncan.
    It also raises a second aspect. Not only is there a stark contrast with the response to the Ukraine tragedy, the connection between the two is largely ignored. The removal from the global economy of Ukraine and Russian agriculture, food and fertiliser is having a devastating impact on the East African famine. Some of the people dying in East Africa are doing so as a consequence of the Ukraine conflict. They are victims of that same tragedy. Yet the response to that tragedy is actually diverting resources away from them.
    Tragically that’s probably also true of our sector’s own DEC appeal. The profile and level of donations is almost certainly displacing significant attention and public giving that could go to support East Africa. As a result we’re left with unprecedented levels of donations for Ukraine that we’ll struggle to spend – it will take us years – while at the same time having less to spend supporting victims of the same crisis who happen to be located in a different place.
    We should – very urgently – amend the wording of the DEC Ukraine appeal so that future donations go to support those ‘suffering as a result of the crisis’. That will enable us to use the funds more widely, quickly and effectively – wherever the need is greatest – as opposed to limiting its use to just supporting refugees and displaced families from the actual conflict area.

  2. All spot on (including Martin’s comment), except the framing about this being primarily a problem of the humanitarian system: ‘How did the humanitarian system end up in this mess?’ ‘The problem lies in the politics, structure and incentives of the humanitarian system’

    It’s much larger than that. The action needs to be taken *outside* the humanitarian system – by national and local government, by the diplomatic, economic and political arms of the international community.

    This is really clear in the Ukraine response, where the humanitarian resourcing and action we are seeing is driven by non-humanitarian political, economic, diplomatic and media actors, as much as being driven by the humanitarian needs themselves.

    That is what’s absent in East Africa, where needs are arguably greater if (due to those same media and political actors) a lot less visible. Humanitarians have been repeatedly raising alarms, largely ignored, for the past two years.

    I think it is a problem that humanitarians reflect the failing on themselves because, important advocacy and policy support aside, its largely beyond our power to address and thus results in the wrong, humanitarian-centric, solutions being proposed.

    Humanitarians need to be clearer in their advocacy that by definition, preventative action has to be taken by non-humanitarians – including national leaders, international media, diplomats, ministries, International Financial Institutions and communities themselves – which is the only way the eventual humanitarian caseload will be reduced to a scale that can be effectively planned for, resourced and delivered.

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