August 19 has been designated as World Humanitarian Day, with this year’s focus being on the Horn of Africa drought crisis. A panel of aid workers spoke in Kenya’s capital Friday on the humanitarian response so far and predictions for the immediate future.
Most of the panelists bemoaned the fact that this latest catastrophe, in which 12 million people are facing starvation and hunger, was entirely expected.
Abbas Gullet, secretary-general of the Red Cross Society, said that Kenyan meteorological experts issued warnings more than one year ago predicting that the rains of last October and November, and those of March to May of this year, would fail.
He said he and his colleagues gave it their best shot to sound the alarm.
"When we launched our appeal in January, we were trying to tell people in the country, the government, and all other actors, early response, early recovery. But, obviously, people were not too convinced," said Gullet.
Even when the signs of drought were beginning to be seen, nothing still was done.
"We all know working here in Kenya the early warning signs have been there. Drought is a recurrent phenomenon and drought does not necessarily need to lead into excessive suffering of the people if all efforts are brought to bear on the onset of the drought," said Olivia Yambi, resident and humanitarian coordinator of UNICEF-Kenya.
She said conflict in Somalia and the resulting exodus of refugees into neighboring Kenya have been major challenges in aid efforts, and high food prices are pushing many people even living in cities to the point of destitution.
The four-person panel discussing drought on Friday consisted of officials from the United Nations and national and international humanitarian agencies. They lauded efforts by aid workers and local partners working in very difficult and often dangerous situations to deliver much-needed assistance.
The Red Cross’s Gullet also recognized those contributing to the Kenya for Kenyans campaign, in which corporations and individuals in Kenya contribute to famine relief efforts. So far, the three-week campaign has raised over $7.5 million.
"The idea of Kenyans for Kenya was for us to realize that we must also take responsibility for our own situation because, while the international community has been generous and supportive over the years, African societies and countries and communities and people are endowed with lots of resources - both human, financial, and material," said Gullet.
Panelists stressed the need for governments and agencies to implement long-term food security strategies.
Philippa Crosland-Taylor, acting regional director for the Horn, East and Central Africa for Oxfam, said, "Only six percent of international aid goes towards agriculture. And of that, a fraction - a fraction - of that six percent is about supporting pastoralists’ lifestyles. That marginalization that is happening is the cause of some of this response that we’re having to do now."
Some long-term food security strategies that were mentioned include setting up irrigation systems, tapping underground water sources, investing in seed production, and implementing innovative agricultural practices.
VOA correspondents Peter Heinlein and Gabe Joselow reported this past week from Mogadishu, Somalia, about the humanitarian situation there. Watch some of their pictures.