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AID POLICY: Translating early warning into early action
LONDON, 9 July 2012 (IRIN) - No one can say they did not see last year's
food crisis in East Africa coming; there was almost a year of
increasingly strong warnings, but it was not until Somalia was formally
declared to be in a state of famine that substantial funding finally
started coming in.
After this, just the latest of a long series of failures to translate
early warnings into timely action, researchers at London's Chatham
early-warning-early-action> embarked on a project to try to find out
Rob Bailey, who is leading the project, says previous research had
tended to focus on technical issues. "If only we could improve the
early warning information; if only we could improve the way
organizations coordinate with each other, then we would be able to get
a better response. This has been the focus in research and policymaking
for the past couple of decades, and yet it has only really demonstrated
marginal improvements at best, and it did nothing at all in the case of
Somalia last year."
Instead Bailey says he wants to understand why delay is the typical
outcome of the decision-making process, and why politicians, nationally
and internationally, might be unwilling to acknowledge a crisis and
respond early on. Some pointers have already emerged.
Participants in discussions organized by the project have suggested
that the current pressure for greater accountability and value for
money may cause problems.
A drought is no one's fault, but the decision to spend large sums of
public money on a crisis which doesn't materialize can be traced back
to an individual, with potentially career-threatening consequences. And
modern communication systems, like email, can diffuse information
widely, while allowing everyone to leave the decision to someone else.
Something as simple as demanding an explicit decision, even if that
decision is not to act, could remove some of the perverse incentives to
Decision-makers also prefer a high degree certainty, for instance over
how many people are going to die if they do not take action, and that
is a degree of certainty that forecasters do not always feel able to
give. Gary Eilerts, programme manager for USAID's Famine Early Warning
System, FEWS NET, says rapid improvements in communications mean that
the forecasts are now more accurate than ever before.
"It's much easier to get information from distant localities," he told
IRIN, "and of a much broader nature, and it's just increased everybody's
ability to understand what's going on. but there's still a substantial
residue of uncertainty when we put all these indicators and this data
together, so that we can still have a divergence in how people analyse
it, and how we determine what the right response should be."
And FEWS NET deals with governments - just one or two people in each
country, says Eilerts. "We put a high premium on trying to work within
regional and national systems," he says, "because ultimately they have
the responsibility to the people."
So a lot of the speed of response depends on the systems - and the
attitude - of national governments. Systems can be improved. The annual
rainfall pattern across the Sahel means that as early as October it is
clear whether or not the rains have been adequate, and whether there is
likely to be a food crisis the following year. Mandatory meetings
scheduled in October to review the position and consider a menu of
options could start the ball rolling sooner.
The primacy of politics
But technical improvements can only do so much; beyond a certain point
it is down to politics. Last year in East Africa, Kenya and Ethiopia
responded very differently. In Kenya the food crisis disproportionately
affected Somali-speaking areas. Kenya has a substantial number of
Somali-speaking voters, and an election on the horizon. And if the
government had any doubts that the issue was important to its
electorate, they would have been dissipated by the impressive public
response to a Kenyan Red Cross appeal for the affected area.
For the Ethiopian government the political dynamic was different, with
less likelihood of being voted out of office for a slow response, and a
strong desire to change the international discourse on Ethiopia from
drought and famine, to investment and opportunity. The consequent
reluctance to publicly declare a crisis meant a late and less effective
But they did acknowledge a problem. In the most notorious example of
politics negating early warning, the former President of Niger, Mamadou
Tandja, denied there was famine or even hunger in his country despite
having the most effective national early warning system in West Africa,
something which eventually contributed to his overthrow in a coup
The man now in charge of Niger's food security programme, Amadou
Allahoury Diallo, says the early warning system remained in place, even
during the period when the government was refusing to recognize its
warnings. "Even though it denied the figures," Allahoury Diallo told
IRIN, "the government still needed an information system; it could do
what it chose with that information, but it still needed to know."
So what makes a government see a crisis and refuse to act? Allahoury
Diallo says it is a state of mind. "Maybe the government was
embarrassed, or ashamed to admit how bad the situation was. Nowadays we
think differently. We have a democratically elected government which is
under an obligation to deliver. And we know that even if you lie to the
outside world, you can't lie to your own people, since they are living
with the reality of the situation every day."
Chatham House is finding that a lot comes back to politics. Says Rob
Bailey: "A lot of it comes down to trying to understand the incentives
that politicians themselves are operating under - what are the costs
and benefits that they are weighing up in their own minds when deciding
whether or not to respond to early warnings.
"Then the question becomes: 'How can you begin to shift that political
calculus? How can you try to reduce the costs that politicians might
incur from responding early, and how can you increase the benefits, the
rewards that they might reap if they are able to prevent a crisis?'
Finally, institutions matter, but politics matter most."
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[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United
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