Famines & Fiascos: Let’s stop blaming politics and get into the basics of how to prevent famine

Famines & Fiascos: Let’s stop blaming politics and get into the basics of how to prevent famine

We are facing four famines this year.  Parts of South Sudan have already declared. Somalia will likely declare famine if April rains fail. Northern Nigeria and Yemen are facing famines. The Famine Early Warning System (FEWSNET) estimates that approximately 70 million people will require food assistance in 2017. That is up by 40% from 2015. (See graphic below.)

Of particular alarm is a sudden up-tick after a decade or so of decline in deaths related to famine, as pointed out by Stephen Devereux’s “Famine in the Twentieth Century” (http://www.ids.ac.uk/files/dmfile/wp105.pdf). We surely couldn’t face the type of massive famines like those in China in the 1960s when 30 – 33 million people died? (See graph below.)

A recent opinion piece in the New York Times goes so far as to ask “Is the Era of Great Famines Over?” (https://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/09/opinion/is-the-era-of-great-famines-over.html) While this article makes the point that famines are largely due to “politics,” this needs to be unpacked to understand that politics are intertwined with dwindling resources due to a new world disorder and to the looming impact of climate change.

Conflict + Climate = More Famines

Conflicts that lead to food insecurity are often led by warring groups (South Sudan; Yemen) and gangs (Nigeria) in places where resources are scarce and the climate is brutal. These men in military uniforms are rarely willing to come to the table and when they do they lie and obfuscate. The buttoned up crowds from New York, London, Brussels, and D.C. don’t know how to wrangle with these alligators. The diplomats, well intentioned to be sure, fail to recognise that their power derived from Cold War super-powers who kept a balance between these guerrilla and gorilla leaders. Diplomats stood at the centre of the scale, with the ends weighed down by money and arms. Of course these quasi-states and their quasi-leaders were the result of colonialism even earlier still. Now? Super powers are diminished and interests have waned, shifting toward the amorphous fight against terrorism. The Cold War. September 11th. International chaos and “superpowers” retreating to nationalism and xenophobia. The world has shifted from one system to another and then to no system at all.

Now climate change. Not only do we have increasing levels of unmitigated conflict, we have communities languishing without civil infrastructures that can address repeated droughts and other climate related emergencies. People are frying up in the increasing temperatures and there is seemingly no one there to help them.

Humanitarians Heading into the Breach

The humanitarian community is the only thing that stands in the way of thousands of deaths. Affected nations don’t have the resources, wherewithal, and in some instances, the will to help their populations. Civil society, religious groups, community based organisations, and others are playing roles and yet the scale of famine can make their efforts inadequate. The dynamics associated with crop failures, livestock deaths, commodity price increases, and panic and “stress” migrations lead to untenable situations where only outsiders can help.

Humanitarians deliver food, shelter, nutritional support, emergency health care, and protection. They save lives, one-by-one, but the cost, complexity and potential of these interventions vary widely. There is always more to do and never enough to do what is needed.


Direct food distribution is the simplest form of response and its costs are most direct, e.g. ratios between overhead and direct costs are weighted toward the latter.

As recent work with WFP has shown, cash is not necessarily less expensive than direct food distribution because of the increased technical needs and the larger-up front costs. Cash is more complex because of the market implications (commodity, food, and shelter costs rise to the aid amounts) and the social dynamics associated with cash support to the least vulnerable in already vulnerable communities.

Nutrition and health support are more expensive given the need of fixed and mobile outpatient/inpatient treatment centres, technical staff, and supply logistics. This support is more focused and so does not have the life saving potential of cash or food but it does focus on the most vulnerable, especially children and women.

Protection, the need to ensure that people are not targeted (GBV) and that their human rights are protected, is relatively straightforward. The bigger issue is the cost associated with effective protection. The prevention, identification, referral, and treatment of protection cases takes an infrastructure of highly specialised technical people and facilities that are simply not present in many cases.

Resilience efforts are the most expensive and the most complex. They require a fundamental understanding of systemic issues that affect households’ and communities’ capacities to predict, withstand and recover from shocks. This implies long-term interventions associated with education, capacity building, infrastructure, and livelihoods that must be in place prior to the onset of a crisis and be strong enough to support the escalating needs associated with an emergency. We do not have the data to understand the social dynamics that enable these components to persist nor where there tipping points (points of failure) may be.

Complexity, Scale & Pace

In addition to the returns and benefits of different interventions and the moral imperative to do them all, humanitarians face the complexity of actors (local and national NGOs, UN agencies, local and national authorities, technical advisors/consultants, governments, and direct donors, amongst others) and a scale and pace that can be daunting.

Think about the current crisis unfolding in Somalia. The international community has committed +US$500 million that should be put to work (spent) over 3 – 5 months. That is a quintupling of operational capacity in a matter of weeks. It will also involve well over a few hundred different local and international organisations. For even greater degrees of complexity, scale and pace (although not famine related), look at the Syria crisis. It ramped up over 2 – 3 years to being the largest humanitarian response in the last 100 years. AND, these emergencies are unfolding in places of constant conflict, dismal infrastructure, minimal government support—the most complicated operating environments in the world.

The fact that humanitarians get anything done is somehow amazing.

Coordination: A Complicating Structure

Humanitarians do get things done but it is messy and often sloppy and there are countless instances where, from Rwanda to Darfur to Haiti, they could have done better. They have tried to address failings. Unfortunately, this has often been done through simply adding to the chaos.  

There is no doubt that coordination can lead to an effective and efficient use of resources in complex operating environments. This lies at the heart of OCHA and the cluster system. OCHA assumed the mantle of coordination and amassed a mountain of resources to do so. Yet, its place in a larger political landscape meant that it needed to branch out, moving from coordination into needs assessments, consolidated appeals, its own funding tools (pooled funds), the development of humanitarian policies, and amongst these, field coordination.  Its mandate became intertwined with various roles that appeased donors but that moved away from its genesis.  It is a classic case of mission creep. It is little wonder that OCHA lost the mantle of coordination to UNHCR in the Syria response and is now facing severe budget cuts that are forcing it to re-examine its role. (https://www.irinnews.org/investigation/2017/01/16/exclusive-un-humanitarian-wing-ocha-lays-170-starts-overhaul)

Coordination is really about partnership and partnership isn’t simply about working together. Partnership is about understanding different actors’ interests, constraints, resources, and competencies, and how these combine to achieve a goal better than if they were to go it alone. It is incumbent upon humanitarian actors to work in concert with one another because they recognise it is the best way to achieve a goal. It is misguided to think that they will do so because yet another UN agency will tell them how to do so. For this to happen, we need to make organisations accountable to clear targets and this requires some basic performance indicators and information; not a whole new structure.  

This is not OCHA’s fault. It is the result of the penchant to dream anew rather than to improve and strengthen what exists while filling in some big, glaring gaps. This is the humanitarian community’s greatest fiasco. It faces setback after setback, failing millions of people it is there to serve, and instead of improving what exists, it creates something new.

Let’s Get Down to Basics

The penchant for new structure, new frameworks, and new tools, is based on the fact that humanitarians have a litany of “failures’ and too little data to fully explain what went right or what went wrong. Without evidence, we fall back on the theory rather than improving practice. We dream up new answers instead of investing in what already exists. We keep building the new mousetrap when, with all due respect, the activities related to food emergency responses are pretty damn simple.

·      Food Security: Are people getting the right amount of food at the right time? If so, SAM/GAM rates, food consumption scores, and IPC levels should improve. Data: To know this, standardised data must be collected, tracked, and analysed at the smallest analytical units possible, e.g. every individual receiving support. This data can then be aggregated geographically, demographically, or in other ways to illustrate peaks and troughs of need/performance. Frequency:  This is based on the pace of the emergency but should not be less than bi-weekly.

·      Cash: Are people getting the right amount? Do recipients have to pay a “tax” or suffer some form of diversion? How do they use the money? Is cash affecting social dynamics and/or market prices?  Data: Data should be tracked to ensure output performance (that the right people are getting the right amount of cash) and then outcomes (that recipients are spending money on emergency related debt/food and then, perhaps, shifting to NFIs, health, transportation, telephony, etc. If affected populations shift away from debt and food in a food emergency, targeting should change.)  Frequency:  This is based on the pace of the emergency but should not be less than bi-weekly.

·      Nutrition & Health: The various sites that support health and nutrition depend on three issues: the variance/influx of admissions and treatments; the quality and number of staff; and the on-site supplies of therapeutic foods, medicines, and other materials. Data: The data is related to the number/type of admissions and how this relates to the number/quality of staff and supply levels/pipelines. Frequency:  Given that these issues can change rapidly, especially with a sudden influx of patients due to stress migration, data on all three should be collected at least weekly.

·      Protection: As noted above, this should be related to having systems that can both prevent and identify increased protections issues related to an emergency. The data associated with this is complicated without a baseline: the number and type of protection issues in a non-emergency setting. If some form of baseline exists, then some change could be theoretically tracked. The problem is in identification and reporting—vulnerable people who suffer protection issues may think that their vulnerabilities may increase by coming forward. Data & Frequency: We don’t have any models or common practices that could even begin to identify metrics and data collection models to effectively address protection issues during a quick on-set food emergency. Registration of people prior to an emergency is where much of the work is leading, especially given UNHCRs long history of this in relation to refugees. Yet, there are protection issues associated with comprehensive lists of people fleeing complex conflict and there don’t seem to be ways to shift these lists to local or national authorities when crises subside.

·      Social Security: Education is the big one here. As we know, stress migration can lead people away from social infrastructure (education, community-based support, and livelihoods) that enable people to not only better weather the storms of a crisis but to bounce back more quickly when it recedes. Hey become untethered and children can suffer the most. Data & Frequency: UNICEF is the leader here and they do a fair amount of work on registration and enrolment, amongst other work, that tries to preserve the social and educational structures that will serve individuals and communities for the long term. Still, the complexity of this implies that we are a long way off from standard performance metrics.

While the metrics, data, and data collection frequency described above is simple, it is amazing to continue to see +100 question surveys being deployed around a response. It is not that that some of this other data might be useful. It is simply that there are deep diminishing returns in data that move beyond these key metrics. The data becomes too cumbersome to be translated in ways to support operational decision-making.

Finally, standards. The simplicity and small number of metrics lends itself to common standards for data collection. All survey instruments should be standardised and data collection models should be based on common templates. This will allow data to be aggregated across organisations easily so that they work in concert together without another layer of bureaucracy or another UN structure. Luckily, the Grand Bargain from the World Humanitarian Summit emphasises this.

Can We Prevent Famines?

Yes. We can stop famines but not through the unrealistic belief that we can sensibly untangle international politics or somehow stall climate change.  I would love it if we could create world peace and stave off climate change but I’m a bit of a hard-nosed realist and these seem way beyond anything that’s feasible. We can’t stop famines through the creation of new structures and new organisations that simply add to the complexity.

We can certainly manage the complexity, pace and scale of different responses through simple and yet high-performance oriented metrics that show what’s working where and why.

We can stop famines by if we use these metrics to inform how resources are deployed before, during and after a crisis with a surgical level of precision and the ability to adapt and change as the situation on the ground dictates.

We can stop famines if, with such data and analytics in hand, we can make humanitarian actors accountable, giving them the authority and control to do what they do best but demanding that they prove, through every step, that they’ve done what they set out to do and divesting resources from them the moment they can’t perform.

We can stop famines if we get much better at what we already do, using data and analysis to inform operations, ensuring that every dollar spent is maximised toward saving lives.

Money! Money! Money! Cash is Invading Humanitarian Action

Money! Money! Money! Cash is Invading Humanitarian Action

Data & The False Promise of Simplicity

Data & The False Promise of Simplicity