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Charities Say Africa Drought Aid Delay Cost Lives

Internally displaced Somali families settle inside a war-devastated cathedral building in the old center of Mogadishu, Somalia, August 2011. (file photo)

A new report says tens of thousands of lives could have been saved if the international community and aid agencies had responded earlier to the 2011 drought in the Horn of Africa. The report, based on an investigation by charities Oxfam and Save the Children, asserts there were clear warning signs of an impending crisis - but says many donors wanted proof of a humanitarian catastrophe before acting to prevent one. And the charities are now issuing early warnings of a food crisis in parts of West Africa.

It's estimated that between 50,000 and 100,000 people died in the drought and food crisis that hit the Horn of Africa last year - more than half of them children under five.

The U.S. government says 29,000 young children died in the space of just 90 days when the famine was at its peak.

An investigation by British aid agencies Oxfam and Save the Children, titled "A Dangerous Delay," says many of the victims could have been saved if the world had acted earlier.

"There were warnings of a food crisis issued in early 2011 and those warnings stated that the crisis would probably hit in the summer of 2011," said Rocco Blume, policy advisor for Oxfam. "But those warnings weren't heeded and there are a number of reasons why. Essentially at the beginning of the year there were many competing priorities, such as the Arab Spring, the crisis in Ivory Coast and the Japanese tsunami that had just occurred. So the attention of the international community was elsewhere."

Blume said the international community gave very generously once the scale of the catastrophe was clear. But he said sophisticated early warning systems forecast a likely emergency as early as August 201, well before the first signs of famine surfaced.

"Currently, the international aid system and the international community tend to respond to figures of malnutrition or statistics of malnutrition. The world gets into gear when television pictures start showing starving children. It's possible to respond far earlier and to prevent that situation from occurring," said Blume.

The report concludes that a culture of risk aversion caused a six-month delay in the aid effort - costing lives and money.

"Aid agencies have in the past been accused of 'crying wolf' when they issue warnings before a crisis has actually hit. There is a difficult balance we have to strike in giving the early warnings, but also making very clear what the impact will be," said Blume.

The timing of the report is no accident. Aid agencies warn another crisis is looming, this time in West Africa - and the international community needs to act fast.

"Right now in West Africa there are warnings that this year there will be a food crisis. Across the countries of Niger, Mali, Mauritania and Burkina Faso, there are very low food stocks, high food prices," said Blume. "And the implication of this is that right now the international community needs to be providing funding and support to prevent this from becoming a dire food emergency."

Poor harvests, drought and pest infestations have been blamed for the shortages. Aid agencies warn the last food crisis in West Africa in 2010 hit 10 million people - and action is needed to stop a crisis from turning into a catastrophe.