What would you like people to understand about the magnitude of the East Africa food crisis?
This emergency is so enormous, it is hard to grasp. We consider the Haiti earthquake of 2010 a huge disaster, and it was. It affected three million people, and it will be years before the recovery is complete. But in East Africa, the food crisis has already struck 12 million people, and the numbers are rising quickly.
To take the Haiti comparison further, it was challenging to deliver aid to Haiti because the port and airport were badly damaged by the quake, but in East Africa it’s even more difficult: We need to reach people in multiple countries spread out across a huge land area. Many are living in remote, hard-to-access areas, and some are caught in the midst of armed conflict.
And in Haiti, lives hung in the balance for the first 10 or 15 days while rescuers tried to free survivors trapped under the rubble; in East Africa the period of acute, life-threatening danger will be measured not in days but in months.
What is Oxfam doing in response to the disaster?
Oxfam is working in drought- and famine-affected areas of Somalia, Ethiopia, and Kenya. We're supporting farmers and pastoralists with seeds, tools, livestock, veterinary care for their animals, and water. For those who have already been uprooted by the food shortage, we have set up water and sanitation facilities in the camps. And for children who have been too hungry for too long, we are providing therapeutic feeding. We are also distributing food, but where possible, we are providing cash grants and cash-for-work programs to enable people to purchase their own food from local markets. By "we" we mean not only Oxfam but also the local organizations we are supporting.
Is aid getting through to Somalia?
Yes. Oxfam partners are now providing clean water and sanitation to 300,000 displaced Somalis in the camps outside Mogadishu. This is the largest public health program in the country. Partners are also running the largest therapeutic feeding program in Mogadishu: They are admitting 3,000 children a day. We have partners in other hard-hit areas of the country who are providing cash relief and cash-for-work programs, as well as water for people and livestock. In all, Oxfam partners are reaching more than 800,000 people with aid in Somalia.
Famine has been declared in five areas of Somalia. When does a food shortage become a famine?
Famine has very specific criteria: if 20 percent of the population of a region is eating fewer than 2,100 calories a day and accessing less than four liters of water, 30 percent of the children are experiencing acute malnutrition, and the death rate exceeds two per day per 10,000, the situation is designated a famine. What it means is that all systems have failed. The specificity of the definition helps ensure that the word isn’t used lightly. When we say famine, we mean this is no time for politics, blame, or delays. People are in a life-and-death struggle, and a failure to act will have drastic consequences.
What are the causes of the East Africa food crisis?
There are four key contributors to the crisis: a drought that has lasted several years; a spike in food prices; armed conflict in Somalia, and chronic poverty.
Some areas are experiencing the worst drought in 60 years. Climate change threatens to lengthen and deepen weather-related disasters like this all over the world.
In some parts of the region, 60 percent-90 percent of the livestock has died; that combined with crop failures has driven food prices out of reach and forced people to try and survive on wild fruits and plants that can't sustain them.
At the root of the food crisis is poverty. On a good day in Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia, much of the population is living on less than $1 a day. Without savings or an effective government safety net, failed rains can push millions to the brink of starvation.
What does this emergency say about the effects of climate change?
Once again, we are seeing what happens when climate change and poverty collide. For people who are barely eking out a living from the land, even small changes to the environment can be devastating. Unless communities are able to build their resilience, we will be looking at more food crises and more famines in the future.
How does Oxfam approach its work with national governments in disaster-affected countries?
We enter this response and all emergency responses with the understanding that people have the right to lives of security and dignity. At times of disaster, governments have the responsibility to uphold those rights and provide good-quality assistance. When a government lacks the capacity—or the willingness—to launch an effective disaster response, Oxfam steps in to help. Once on the ground, we work with governments to whatever extent we can, as a means of building their capacity to respond effectively to future emergencies.
How does Oxfam approach its work with disaster-affected communities?
An international organization shouldn't go into a community with its own inflexible agenda. Local people have a good sense of what's needed and what will work, and their participation in projects is crucial—from concept to planning to final product. At Oxfam America, we help community members take a leadership role in disaster and development projects—not only to improve the quality and sustainability of the projects but also to build people’s confidence in their capacity to advocate for themselves. Even if a community never experiences another emergency, it needs to be strong and organized to take steps out of poverty. It may need to call for better health care, better education opportunities, better representation in the political process. To do that effectively, it takes confidence and a strong voice as a community. We try to foster that.
Oxfam aims to reach 3 million people in the East Africa region with a variety of support including food aid, clean water, and veterinary care for animals. We are also campaigning to change the root causes of this crisis. Find out how you can help saves lives in East Africa.