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Oxfam America: More to East Africa Famine and Drought Than Meets the Eye

August 18, 2011

For the past month the world has watched the devastating footage coming out of East: media images of starving families and parents burying their children paint a desperately bleak picture of the situation on the ground.

But there is far more to this crisis than short-term emergency response. Years of little or no rain, conflict in Somalia, rising food prices, entrenched poverty, and lack of investment in affected areas have all contributed to the current crisis. It is no coincidence that the worst affected areas are among the poorest, least developed, and most neglected parts of the region.

In fact, our report, Saving lives, seeking solutions, addresses the longer-term issues in Ethiopia, starting in 2008 with the global food crisis. The report outlines in vivid terms the devastation even then:

It's June 2009. In the West Arsi zone of central Ethiopia, the convergence of failed rains, chronic poverty, and a wild spike in food prices has left 320,000 people needing relief assistance. In the yard outside the cluster of huts, an old woman—a widow and a grandmother of 10—describes the meager meals her family has been surviving on since January: a bit of corn and coffee in the morning, and nothing else for the rest of the day. Some days there is no food at all.

Yet despite what we’re seeing in the media, there are development programs that work, and work well. During the past few years, Oxfam has partnered with local communities to establish programming that has not only responded to the ongoing drought, but also built up the resilience of the people in the area. The boreholes, restored ponds, grain banks, and dams built through "Cash for Work" and "Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene" programs are together putting communities in a better position to deal with the challenges droughts create.

While these programs are successful however, the aid community cannot alone resolve the root causes of the disaster. National governments; as well as the East African Community, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, and the African Union; and the international donor community must step up and invest in promising initiatives like these and others so that the underlying vulnerability and chronic marginalization of those worst hit can be addressed on a large-scale.

The impulse to focus on the crisis through the lens of the affected is not necessarily wrong, but the dialogue has got to include a discussion of long term solutions.

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