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An African Horn of Plenty

ROME – After six months and the deaths of tens of thousands of people, the famine in Somalia – caused by the worst drought in 60 years – is over. But a wider crisis in Africa continues.

In the Horn of Africa – Somalia, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, South Sudan, and Sudan – some 14.6 million children, women, and men remain without enough food. While to the west, in the Sahel countries of Niger, Chad, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Mauritania, another 14 million are threatened.

Even worse, there is a high risk in Somalia that famine will recur unless coordinated, long-term action is taken. We cannot avoid droughts, but we can try to prevent them from becoming famines.

In just over a decade, the Horn of Africa has suffered three droughts, followed by severe crises. Each time, the international community agreed that long-term measures were needed to prevent another tragedy. But each time, when the rains finally came, the world’s good intentions melted away.

We must ensure that this does not happen again by joining forces now to banish hunger from the region once and for all. Not to do so would be doubly tragic, because the loss of life and human suffering would be entirely needless: as the end of the Somali famine shows, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and its partners have started to make a difference.

The World Food Program, UNICEF, FAO, and international NGOs now have emergency response programs that are based not solely on food and input hand-outs, as in the past, but also on cash-for-work and food-voucher schemes. These allow families to buy food locally, enabling them to remain near their homes, while also stimulating economic recovery and rehabilitating the local infrastructure needed for agriculture and livestock production.

These agencies’ methods help people who need food urgently, but they also help them to improve their livelihoods and build resilience to surmount future crises. For example, farmers in Somalia’s Bay and Shabelle regions took advantage of the recent rains and the aid provided by the FAO and other agencies to double their production of maize and sorghum and bring in their largest harvest in years.

The world community must continue to implement such approaches if it wishes to contain and prevent further crises. Even at the height of the famine, some Somali farmers were successfully growing and selling their crops. This was possible because, before the crisis, FAO had used cash-for-work programs to help them to rebuild the local irrigation system and make high-quality, high-yield seeds available.

But producing food is not enough. Poor farmers can grow bumper crops, but unless there are roads on which to transport their produce, and a market where they can sell it, they will remain poor and vulnerable. And, obviously, if no one has the money to purchase what they produce, their efforts will be wasted. That is why it is critical to stimulate both local supply and demand.

Injecting cash into local economies can help them flourish. But people in rural communities need much else as well in order to live productive and fulfilling lives: basic social safety nets, schools, health services, effective risk-management systems, and personal security.

The FAO is renewing its commitment to a hunger-free Africa. But this goal is obviously beyond the capacity of any international organization or government working alone. Achieving this objective will require partnership among governments, regional bodies, civil-society organizations, and the private sector.

Linking emergency assistance with long-term measures can offer a way out of protracted crisis and onto a path of sustainable development. By stepping up current efforts, agriculture can also become a key factor in establishing peace and stability the Horn of Africa – essential conditions for growth and prosperity there.

Droughts are not preventable. But hunger and famine are. It is unthinkable for the international community to allow them to persist.

This column was produced within the framework of the EC-funded “V4Aid” project. The views expressed do not necessarily represent the view of the EU.