Fighting Famine Is Ineffective Aid


Saving lives after the outbreak of famine is critical, but it is ineffective aid. We must advocate for responding long before images of starving children hit the nightly news.

It’s popular in the press to judge a charity by its efficiency. Donors want to know whether their money is being used effectively, and journalists play a valuable part in keeping organizations accountable. 

Without downplaying the important role the media play in this respect, I believe the public’s concerns about effective aid would be better served if the press also paid attention to slow-building disasters early on -- before they begin claiming lives.

Value of an early response

Inefficient responses to disasters can cost as much as 80 times more than a well-planned early response.

No one would wait until a leak had caused damage throughout a house before repairing the roof. Too often, however, journalists wait until they can show images of starving children before alerting the public of the need to respond to an easily-foreseen disaster. Charities depend on an informed public, who generously responds to the needs they see around the world.

When Americans learn of an impending disaster, they will respond. But they only hear about these issues through the media.

Unfortunately, news of a pending disaster is nearly nonexistent to anyone on the outside. Those of us who have watched disasters come and go know that a full-scale response to a crisis today is immensely more effective and less expensive than if the international community only begins to respond after children are dying.

Horn of Africa famine

Years ago, despite early warnings, the world waited while a food crisis turned into famine in parts of the Horn of Africa. As many as 100,000 died over the following months -- nearly a third of them children under age 5, because the international response was too slow.

Jan Egeland, the former United Nations Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, estimated that an early response to the 2005 Niger food crisis would have cost $1 per day to prevent malnutrition among children there. When an international response was finally underway, however, it cost $80 per child per day.

There is no technical reason for a famine to surprise us. The Famine Early Warning Systems Network, funded by USAID, has been able to successfully predict regions where food vulnerability is increasing and where famine is likely. The system sent its first alert about the Horn of Africa 11 months before the United Nations declared famine in parts of that region.

Building resiliency

Efforts today will save lives. Planting and irrigating crops, drilling wells, providing drought-resistant seed, and working with smallholder farmers are proven ways to prevent a drought from becoming a famine.

During the food crisis in the Horn of Africa -- a region the size of the eastern United States -- World Vision was working in 87 areas. While the people in those areas were not insulated from the effects of the two-year drought, no one died because of it. As we work over the long term in these communities, we can improve farming techniques; build a healthier ecology so that soil is fertile and rainfall is more productive; and enhance economic growth to help families afford food, even when prices spike.

Saving lives after the outbreak of famine is, of course, critical. But it is ineffective aid. Those of us who care about efficiency and effectiveness in our humanitarian institutions must advocate for responding to food crises long before images of starving children ever hit the nightly news.

Photo ©2011 World Vision, Jonathan Bundu

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