Michael Hofman

August 24th, 2011 – Prospect Issue 186 FREE.

Dadaab in northeast Kenya is one of the largest refugee camps in the world

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our hearts demand a generous response to the Horn of Africa famine. Our heads should now ask some tough questions. The UN general assembly, convening on 20th September, should be the venue for frank answers.

For all the calls from international aid donors for African “ownership” of policies involving the continent, for all their pledges to ensure a role for “stakeholders,” for all their advocacy of “community participation,” one thing stands out. Aid agencies have assumed leadership of the famine relief effort in east Africa, and have taken decisions that will impact the region for years to come. Far from providing a hand on the policy tiller, and a voice at the planning table, Africa has sat back, watching from the sidelines the biggest relief operation on the continent since the Ethiopian famine of 1984.

Of course, operating in such a tough neighbourhood is a huge challenge. The drought embraces some of Africa’s most troubled states: Eritrea and Ethiopia are bitter enemies; Sudan is a pariah; the newly-independent South Sudan is a fledgling in world affairs; Somalia, the worst afflicted by famine, has no government; Kenya, where up to 3m are at risk, is a byword for corruption.

But this does not justify Africa’s absence from the operations room. Nor does it explain why a president or senior minister from one of the afflicted states, or a former leader, or at least a top official from the African Union, has not been chosen by peers to take responsibility for coordinating donor assistance and recipient needs.

Instead, Africa has twiddled its thumbs, postponing by a fortnight an African Union “emergency” summit, scheduled to be held on 9th August. Meanwhile, there has been no one to field some awkward questions.

Many lives have been saved by international intervention, but many have been lost by a late response to an obvious crisis; and many more will be affected by decisions made by aid donors after inadequate consultation. Why was the official announcement of the famine, and the appeal for help, made so late in the day? Children were dying of hunger in northeast Kenya weeks earlier: a fact underplayed at the time by elements of the Kenyan media. Who decided when to declare that the famine was leading to a catastrophe? Were African governments involved in the announcement? If not, why not?

It is unclear who is in charge of relief strategy in the Horn; who takes responsibility for decisions such as endorsing the role of Dadaab, the settlement in north east Kenya, as a centre for relief operations and home to hundreds of thousands of Somalis, fleeing the drought. With a population of over 400,000, Dadaab is one of Kenya’s largest “cities.” But catching up fast will be a second such camp: the result of pressure on a reluctant Kenyan government, despite the fact that the country’s weak coalition doesn’t have the governance and security capacity to absorb a huge flow of refugees to another site.

Africa’s economic recovery has gathered pace in recent years, changing many countries dramatically. But decades of decline have left a grim legacy. In far too many places, the state is weak; its capacity to initiate change has shrunk. The reluctance or inability of African governments to play a part in the response to the famine marks yet another step in their surrender of authority and abnegation of responsibility—and the beneficiaries are the very organisations that play such a big role in disaster relief: non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

The power and influence of NGOs has grown dramatically since African independence 50 years ago. From a few thousand in the 1960s, controlling funds measured in the millions, there are now over 50,000 NGOs operating in South Africa alone.

Although the NGO record on development is mixed at best, the number of NGOs granted consultative status by the Economic and Social Council—the central UN forum for formulating policy on social and economic issues—has risen from 41 in 1948 to over 1,350 in 2008.

As their numbers have grown, they have helped to undermine what the character named Oldest Member, a crusty retired district officer who lives in Kenya and features in my latest novel, Dizzy Worms, identifies as the social contract. In the novel, he asks himself: “What if the government doesn’t deliver? What if the chaps in the north east come to realise that although there is a ‘food deficit’ every year, they won’t starve?… Why? Cos WorldFeed and Oxfam and their UN chums will chip in. All managed by foreigners. Tens of thousands of the buggers come out each year, catching the gravy train that chuffs its way around Africa… If you are starving, the UN will feed you; if the mozzies are killing your kids, Bill Gates will provide a mosquito net; if your road needs rebuilding, DanAid will help… So if the state can’t deliver, why be loyal? Why pay your taxes? Instead you look to big-man politics—to your relative, to your clan, to the ethnic leaders, or the regional boss.”

In other words, a vicious cycle has been created. As the state surrenders many of its core responsibilities to aid agencies, its capacity to manage deteriorates. In the process, it loses some of the country’s brightest and best to the NGOs and UN agencies, who offer salaries that local employers cannot match.

Soon the aid caravan will move on, leaving the two biggest questions unanswered: where has Africa been during the crisis? And why have international aid donors not raised this question themselves? Generosity without accountability is no way to respond to Africa’s gravest famine for 25 years.