• IRC teams report that people have already started dying of hunger in Ethiopia, Somalia, Kenya
  • 20 million will go hungry across the region by September - with at least 3 million facing emergency and catastrophic levels of hunger, risking death

With a catastrophic famine looming on the horizon across East Africa, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) released its first ever Crisis Alert update to its annual Emergency Watchlist today, highlighting that over 3 million people could die without urgent international funding. 

IRC’s annual Watchlist identifies the top countries most at risk of deteriorating from a humanitarian perspective over the course of the year. IRC is issuing a Crisis Alert update in light of the fallout from the war in Ukraine, which - combined with the increasingly detrimental impact of climate change, conflict and COVID-19 - has driven East Africa into a predictable crisis dangerously neglected by the international community and emblematic of the global “System Failure” highlighted in this year’s Watchlist. 

After four consecutive failed rains, hunger in the region is worsening week by week, outstripping the limited funds available. Since the start of the year, the number of people going hungry in Somalia due to drought has nearly doubled. The number of people in Kenya on the brink of famine conditions has tripled. In just one of IRC’s nutrition clinics in Mogadishu, from April to May, the IRC has seen a 265% increase in admissions for children under 5 suffering from severe malnutrition. IRC teams on the ground report that people have already started dying from starvation and the window to prevent mass deaths is rapidly closing.

Despite the vow to “never again,” allow a famine of disastrous proportions to take place, the number of people facing extreme hunger worldwide has reached a new global high - and with a fifth failed rain on the horizon, the drought in East Africa is now the longest-running in decades. During the peak of the 2011 famine, which affected as many as 14 million people, 30,000 people were dying each month, a total of at least 260,000 deaths. Adjusting for population, that would be on par with 6.5 million deaths in the United States, including more than 3 million children under 5 years old - the equivalent of more than six COVID-19 pandemics.

Against this dire backdrop, East Africa has struggled to attract the attention and funding it desperately requires. While billions of dollars of aid have been made available for the response in Ukraine, the international community has failed to respond to its global fallout, including skyrocketing food and fuel prices. East Africa has been hit particularly hard, importing 90% of its wheat from Russia and Ukraine alone. New US funding announced this week is very welcome, but even once spent, the humanitarian response plan for the region would be funded at 40% of assessed need. 

Even once new US funding announced this week is fulfilled, the humanitarian response plan for the region would be funded at 40%. After just over three months, the $1.9 billion appeal for the humanitarian response in Ukraine was 85% funded - a demonstration of the capacity for resource mobilisation when the political will exists.

David Miliband, President and CEO of the IRC, said:

“There is nothing natural about famines in the 21st century. While a complex set of factors are driving extreme hunger, the slide into famine and mass death is man-made, driven by international inaction. This crisis was predictable and preventable. It has been unfolding over two years of repeated warnings and worsening hunger. What we are witnessing is an unnatural disaster of catastrophic proportions.

“Every day of inaction is a matter of life or death. The crisis engulfing East Africa is emblematic of the failure of the international system: failure of prevention, failure of response and failure of leadership. 

“Severe underfunding of humanitarian responses is depriving millions of the assistance they need to survive. While famine alarm bells are ringing, donors have been looking in the rear-view mirror, waiting for data collection and death rates to confirm what IRC is already seeing on the ground. The international community should instead be looking ahead through the windshield: responding now, with a ‘no regrets’ approach, before it's too late. The new US funding announced this week must be a first step, not a last one.” 

Harlem Désir, IRC Senior Vice President, Europe, said:

“The global food crisis, which is being even further exacerbated by war in Ukraine, has revived the real and imminent threat of famine in East Africa. In order to prevent mass starvation, donors must ramp up support to enable immediate action on the ground. 

The EU’s welcome and badly-needed relief efforts in Ukraine and the region have demonstrated that it can show bold leadership and take action at speed in the face of emergencies. It must now act on an equivalent scale and with the same momentum if it is to prevent this hunger crisis spiralling further, and to ensure that other humanitarian crises globally are not neglected. 

Recent EU activity including launching a Humanitarian Air Bridge to deliver nutrition supplies to hard-to-reach areas in Somalia are welcome steps in the right direction. However, despite these efforts, the response remains woefully underfunded. The international community, including the EU, should learn lessons from 2011 and ensure that such a hunger crisis can never happen again. This time member states must ramp up their funding to provide immediate aid to all those who need it, while scaling up both financing and engagement to mitigate against future shocks. By the time famine is declared it will be too late. The time to act is now.”

Recommendations 

  1. Activate the humanitarian system. A full scale up of the humanitarian response is required to mitigate famine in East Africa. The response should seek to apply lessons from previous efforts to avert famine with rapid investment in proven approaches including cash assistance to meet the needs of food-insecure communities.
  2. Adopt a “no regrets” approach to funding. Donors should fully fund the humanitarian responses across the region, and directly fund frontline NGOs, who can scale up quickly.
  3. Mobilise resources for humanitarian access negotiations. Take steps to mitigate the impact of conflict on humanitarian access and ensure aid is able to reach those most in need. 
  4. Address global trade challenges stemming from the war in Ukraine. Pursue all avenues to ease global export restrictions and to restart exports from Ukraine, including ending the blockade on Ukraine’s Black Sea ports to relieve global grain shortages.