Can the Horn of Africa's poverty cycle be broken?

Immediate humanitarian aid is absolutely necessary, but long-term strategies are the only way out

A woman carries a water container at a camp for internally displaced persons in Baidoa, Somalia, on February 13. AFP
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There is no shortage of bleak statistics when it comes to the worsening situation in the Horn of Africa and its surrounding region.

Last week, the UN said that up to 20 million people, mostly in Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia, could go hungry this year as a poor harvest and delayed rains worsen the extreme drought. Fanning the flames of this catastrophe is a shortfall in humanitarian aid. A funding gap of $192 million has led to fatal consequences that are expected to grow only more dire. The UN's World Food Programme (WFP) has less than half of what it needs to address these needs. Photographs of the region's parched land and dried-up rivers document the tragedies but have been inadequate to compel global stakeholders to take action.

A variety of factors that compound the region's suffering. An already-arid zone battered by drought and famine, much of the region is at a further disadvantage because of poor governance, disrupted supply chains, internal conflicts, Covid-19 and frequent attacks attributed to the Somalia-based terrorist group Al Shabab. Poor health and agricultural infrastructure leaves populations vulnerable to the threat of cholera, other water-borne diseases and locusts, as Dr Chimimba David Phiri, from the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation's Addis Ababa office, has explained.

These issues have exacerbated the region's macroeconomic challenges and resulted in rising food prices. The UN says 3 million livestock have died across southern Ethiopia and arid and semi-arid regions of Kenya. And in Somalia, up to 30 per cent of households’ herds have died since mid-2021. To make matters even worse, the Ukraine war has affected the supply of wheat to the region as Russia and Ukraine account for about 90 per cent of East Africa’s wheat imports.

The scale of tragedy is among the most severe found anywhere in the world, and needs to be contained urgently. In 2010 and 2011, 260,000 people in Somalia died from drought and famine caused by the absence of regular rainfall. A similar disaster was averted when it happened again in 2016-2017 because of timely humanitarian assistance. Similar proactive measures are urgently needed to stave off further disaster for the moment.

The long-term solution, though, must be more complex in order to avoid creating an over-reliance on foreign aid. The international community must redouble its efforts to help countries in the region build more robust institutions and implement policies aimed at withstanding the gruelling challenges – both environmental and socio-economic – of climate change. It is not just the aridity and drought that the region must be made more resilient against. For the sake of present and future generations, the Horn of Africa must become a place where governments can safeguard their peoples’ futures. Only then will the cycle of underdevelopment that plagues the region be broken and societies have better prospects for the future.

Published: April 27, 2022, 2:00 AM