A woman leading her goats to find pasture in the Afdher zone, the Somali region of Ethiopia, where drought severely affect communities. Photo by: Mulugeta Ayene / UNICEF Ethiopia / CC BY-NC-ND

In the past half-century, Africa has faced at least a dozen hunger crises. This translates to an average of one hunger crisis every four to five years. This year, history is repeating itself, and no one should say they are surprised. The Ukraine crisis is exacerbating an already worrying situation.

The response to the current hunger crisis is yet again too little too late, jeopardizing the lives of millions of Africans. The current hunger crisis is the worst in decades in several parts of Africa. The situation in Ethiopia, Somalia, and Kenya is critical as these countries are facing a fourth consecutive drought along with the impacts of COVID-19, locust invasions, and conflict.

With at least 1 in every 5 people facing hunger on the continent, it is a race against the clock for governments and aid agencies.

A bolder and more sincere analysis is needed if we are to understand where we have gone wrong, and ultimately explore solutions for breaking this endless cycle.

There are at least three factors behind this chronic, decadeslong suffering of millions.

First, there is no compelling evidence of goodwill, from those with robust financial, political, and technological capabilities to eradicate hunger. We are not where we are because there is a shortage of policies, experts, or even food itself. In fact, enough food is produced to feed everyone on the planet, but there has never been a critical mass of influential players working efficiently and in unison to ensure equitable distribution of this basic need.

Instead, every year, consumers in high-income countries waste almost as much food as the entire net food production of sub-Saharan Africa. Further, due to conflicting economic and political interests, stakeholders have sometimes been unable to agree on solutions for tackling food insecurity.

Second, the constant inability to learn from previous setbacks is also a key underlying factor. Droughts do not happen overnight, and we can predict their onset. Apart from droughts, the livelihoods and food security of many Africans are also affected by recurrent floods. Albert Einstein’s witticism — “insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results” — is perhaps an apt analogy for the perennial inability of key players to end hunger.

Third, Africa’s overdependence on imported food is also a culprit, as evidenced by the Ukraine crisis: one-third of the cereal supply for East Africa comes from Russia and Ukraine. The Ukraine crisis has affected supply chains and led to a shortage of cereals and an escalation of prices in parts of East Africa, which is worryingly a hunger hotspot on the continent.

African agriculture is not yet globally competitive and African farmers struggle to make profits and scale up food production. This is partly due to inadequate subsidies from their governments — making African countries dependent on food imports from continents, such as Europe, where farmer subsidies result in food surpluses.  

Addressing food insecurity on the African continent

It is time for the humanitarian community, partners, and governments to take a hard look in the mirror and face the reality: We need to ensure that the response to hunger crises is less reactive and shortsighted, and that it does not rely on the same techniques that have consistently failed to tackle underlying issues. 

One of the approaches to consider is anticipatory action on food security, based on forecasts and risk analysis. Other innovative systems include programs that enable access to humanitarian funding for early action based on in-depth forecast information. Given that the cycle of drought and floods is a key factor for food insecurity, we need to invest more in water flow control techniques, adaptive agriculture, and more efficient methods of collecting and storing water.

More efforts must be made — by governments, private sectors, and humanitarian and development groups — to support long-term food security plans, including investments in developing agriculture, livestock, and fisheries to achieve food security and economic security.

In addition, we need to have more talks on investment and less on aid. At the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, we are currently running 11 humanitarian response operations, targeting 1.9 million people facing hunger and its effects, while strengthening the communities’ ability to be self-reliant and withstand future food insecurity crises.

IFRC is calling upon the global community to prioritize the growing hunger crisis in Africa, the worst in decades in many countries. We must not allow a repeat of 2011 where close to 260,000 lives were lost in East Africa. Although the situation is already dire, a lot can still be done to save the lives of many, starting with millions of children, mothers, and older people whose lives are at risk. Once urgent needs have been addressed, we need to address the underlying root causes.

This time, hopefully, there will be more goodwill and past mistakes will not be repeated.

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