Voices from Rome: Food safety lessons from Africa drought response

The emergency ministerial-level meeting on the crisis in the Horn of Africa held in the U.N. Good and Agriculture Organization's headquarters in Rome. Photo by: Giulio Napolitano / ©FAO

Drought, hunger, refugees: Decades of strategic frameworks and good intentions haven’t been enough to prevent the ongoing crisis in the Horn of Africa.

There was no hiding the frustration among government and civil society representatives from around the globe who gathered last week at the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization’s headquarters to discuss emergency relief and funding gaps.

On the sidelines of the July 25 meeting in Rome, Devex asked government representatives, U.N. officials and nonprofit folks about the sluggish response to last year’s early warnings and what should be done next to address the current crisis and prevent similar ones in the future. Here are some of their thoughts:

Prepared or not?

“As a result [of USAID’s FEWSNET and other early warning systems], the proper food was in place to distribute and where you see that the food has continue to flow – in Ethiopia, in Kenya and in northern-central Somalia – there is no famine. The challenge is in south Somalia, where our partners have not had access for over a year, going on almost two years, to those vulnerable populations that need their support.”

- Etharin Cousin, U.S ambassador to U.N. agencies in Rome

“We know that because of those actions [especially in Ethiopia and Uganda], which include the building up of social safety net assistance to small farmers and so on, large population groups would have been probably in trouble now, [although] not the same kind of difficulties large population groups in Somalia are in.”

- Werner Schultink, chief of nutrition, UNICEF

“We know that the access in Somalia is not the easiest, so things could have been prepared at the emergency points. Moreover, the persuasiveness of the international community [could have been used] to access the riskiest areas in Somalia as well as [to ask for] the help of the rural communities.”

- Francesco Rocca, commissioner, Italian Red Cross

“The interventions done in Somalia have been, in my opinion, the maximum that could have been done in that type of situation. Somalia is a country where there is a constant conflict that lasts for 20 years; where eight regions are in the hands of Al-Shabab, who forbid international organizations from operating with specialized staff coming from abroad. We put everything in charge of Somali personnel – and fortunately we have qualified staff.”

- Antonio Sergi, general secretary, Intersos

“Al-Shabab is a reality and we should not repeat the error we made in 2006: refusing the dialogue with the Islamic courts, then opening it, but too late. [It’s time] to start a dialogue with Al-Shabab. They are in eight regions in central-southern Somalia.”

- Antonio Sergi, general secretary, Intersos

“It also would have been good if donor countries had kept their promises made for agriculture, for food security, like the L’Aquila commitment [for sustainable agricultural development] in 2009. Our NGO, One, made a report two weeks ago showing that only 22 percent of the pledges had been kept from the L’Aquila promises.”

- Verena Von Derschau, media officer, One (France)

“It is necessary [for the three U.N. food agencies, G-20 and other actors] to start a coordinated effort, effective and able to get results not only in terms of crisis response – that is essential at the moment – but also removing those obstacles that make any intervention harder and the crisis recurring.”

- Elisa Bacciotti, director of campaigns, Oxfam Italia

“Generally, the international donors intervene whenever there are children dying and shown on the TV screens. We appreciated that, of course, but the point is that is not enough. … I think in order to prevent crisis, the international community will have to work with governments. Governments have policies and strategies for development, and investment programs, but they experience shortages in funding, capacity, technology. If the international community could accelerate and support them in those areas, the frequent crisis of food insecurity could be ultimately resolved by those countries.”

- Assefa Abreha, minister plenipotentiary of Ethiopia to FAO

“There is no reason that in 2011, an area that is [arid] continues to [rely upon] rain-fed irrigation when there are low-cost irrigation systems like drip-irrigation systems that can be put into place. We also need diversity of livestock: Goats take far less water and far less food than cows.”

- Etharin Cousin, U.S ambassador to U.N. agencies in Rome

“The most important things to do would have been to invest in agriculture because most Africans – 75 percent – still live from the agriculture, to help small farmers get access to the market, get access to better techniques and better seeds, better fertilizers, to build infrastructure to get food to market, to store the foods, to create regional food storages for catastrophes and to craft emergency plans.”

- Verena Von Derschau, media officer, One (France)

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About the author

  • Elena L. Pasquini

    Elena Pasquini covers the development work of the European Union as well as various U.N. food and agricultural agencies for Devex News. Based in Rome, she also reports on Italy's aid reforms and attends the European Development Days and other events across Europe. She has interviewed top international development officials, including European Commissioner for Development Andris Piebalgs. Elena has contributed to Italian and international magazines, newspapers and news portals since 1995.

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