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East Africa crisis: “Who will believe them?

26 Jul 2011

Borana. (c) Glyn Riley/HelpAge InternationalJonathan Clayton, The Times Africa correspondent, criticised aid agencies for overstating the effects of the east Africa crisis when he wrote: "This month we have been told that East Africa, including Kenya and Uganda, where virtually anything grows and banana trees line the roads, is suffering the worst drought in 60 years..."

We left Addis on a wet Sunday morning on the first leg of our journey to Borana in southern Ethiopia. As we leave Addis, we drive past kilometres of flower farms, fields of sprouting beans, two metre high corn plants and other lush crops growing in the rich black soils of the Rift Valley.

The rain continues to fall as we continue to head south and after four hours of driving we have seen nothing but freshly ploughed fields, and lush plantations of beans, false banana, deep green corn plants and women sitting on the side of the road roasting huge corn cobs.

After a while you can't help but ask yourself if maybe Jonathan is right, where is the drought everyone is crying about?

And then as you leave the Rift valley to enter Borana, the contrast couldn't be starker.

Endless search for pasture and water

The landscape changes dramatically. The rich black soils of the Rift Valley have given way to the dry red soil of the Sahel. The scenery has suddenly switched from moist, lush, green growth to dry, red, dusty soils.

Visions of lush, green growth are replaced by the pathetic sight of the mass migration of thin cattle, donkeys, goats, sheep and camel endlessly searching for pasture and water.

The lush green banana trees have been replaced with thorn trees and looking up you see vultures circling instead of rain falling.

The contrast could not be more dramatic and Jonathan couldn't have been more wrong about this crisis in East Africa. He accused aid agencies like Oxfam and Christian Aid of hyping up a "localised drought" and for crying wolf.

"What happens when there is a real emergency? Will we believe them?"

"Yes! Jonathan we will believe them"

East Africa crisis is real and demands the world's attention

The generous British public believed. It chose to ignore sceptics like Jonathan Clayton and listen to the aid agencies that were not crying wolf but instead demanding the world's attention to a looming disaster in the Horn of Africa.

Aid agencies analyse the evidence, avoid generalising and they don't stereotype countries. Bananas don't line all the roads in Kenya, and it's not the case that "anything" grows in Kenya, Uganda and Ethiopia.

"Who will believe them?" The British public believed, Jonathan. Over thirty million times the British public believed the aid agencies and shared generously.

Ten million people are in danger

However, the unfortunate reality remains that their belief, though a major step, is not enough.

I have seen the carcasses that line the cattle migration routes, the vultures circling in the sky. I have seen the depressing migration of thin animals and concerned pastoralists who follow their animals and their livelihoods in a desperate attempt to survive.

With over ten million lives in danger, they need a lot more than public belief. And they need it now.

Read more about the drought in Ethiopia

HelpAge's work is supported by our sister organisation Age UK. Please donate to Age UK's East Africa appeal for vulnerable older people affected by the devastating drought in Ethiopia.

Age UK is raising money together with the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) for the East Africa Crisis Appeal. The DEC is a consortium of 14 aid agencies working together in times of disasters and emergencies.

Your comments


Mr. Andrew, Thank you for your reflection on the situation at the ground. You are right; the situation is bad in the area you visited. However, I have one question to you and other blog writers that is related to the strategies to change or the change theory they or you think about. For how long the UK and other developed nation community is contributing for emergency? Why NGOs who are delegated to manage the public fund are not implementing projects that can address the root causes of the problem- If the problem is water the fund should be used to develop sustainable water source. If the problem is marketing why not NGOs support the people to have sustainable access to livestock market? Garetaw

Ato P K Gomez

Leaving aside Jonathan Clayton's views, here is a question which needs to be honestly answered: how can it be explained in a situation where food from a region and a country (Kenya) said to be experiencing famine is found on the supermarket shelves of a country, such as Ireland, which is supposed to be self-sufficient in food?

Andrew Collodel

Dear Mr Gomez. Thank you for commenting on the above discussion. The honest answer to the question you pose is “because First World consumer eating habits make this scenario profitable for the large supermarket chains”. Consider the supply of fresh fruit and vegetables the most commonly imported and visible commodities from countries such as Kenya. Here’s the deal. Firstly consumers in the First World require a continuous supply of fresh fruit and vegetables. These must be available at all times in their local supermarket (irrespective of season or price). Secondly consumers are prepared to pay the premium price for their out of season fruit and vegetables. The combination of consumer demand and a willingness to pay the premium price makes the scenario you describe both possible and profitable. Thirdly the competitive nature of the free market system (capitalism) means that supermarket chains must source their produce from across the globe using multiple countries including poorer countries such as Peru, Zambia and Kenya. To be competitive the supply is typically from countries where the labour is cheap, tax breaks generous (thanks to Neoliberal policies underpinned by foreign aid), weak environmental controls and a relaxed rule of law. In this way supermarket chains can source cheap fruit and vegetables which are grown on commercial farms in the South. These cheap products are flown in and put them on the shelves of First World supermarkets where consumers happily buy these products. One supermarket chain in Britain proudly advertises the fact that it sources products from 62 countries therefore ensuring lower prices for the British consumer. One way to reverse the situation you describe is if consumers only bought local, seasonal fruit and vegetables. Another less likely solution would be for example if Ireland put an import tax on fresh fruit and vegetables or simply banned the importation of fruit and vegetables from poor countries in the South. (The latter two scenarios are most unlikely). However the real cause of famine in the Horn of Africa is not really the supply of some products from Kenya but rather is a complex combination of drought, low farm productivity (due to many variables in and around the farm environment), poor infrastructure, thin market systems, conflict in the region and unfair terms of trade between the rich North and the poorer South. But if you wanted to contribute to a change in the status quo, then on your next visit to the fruit and vegetable isle in your local supermarket, remember to buy only local and seasonal fruit and vegetables. Thus in some small way you may reduce the demand for imported fruit and vegetables from Kenya, but you may also contribute to unemployment in Kenya (but that is another debate altogether).

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Andrew Collodel
Job title: Emergency Programme Coordinator-Livelihoods

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