Horn of Africa: Recalling the Lessons in Previous Famines

On August 24th, the Humanitarian Policy Group of the London-based Overseas Development Institute released an online issue of the journal Disasters focusing on famine (available here for free). As yet another acute humanitarian crisis in the Horn of Africa hits international media headlines, this special issue is a valuable reminder of past successes and pitfalls in fighting famines. It is a worthwhile reading for both humanitarian actors and decision makers that will help considering the lessons from the past to avoid repeating mistakes in the future.

The issue is a compilation of articles published in the journal over the last three decades. The collection spans a number of famines that affected the African continent in the 1980s and 1990s and provides reflections on their multiple causes, prevention strategies, the effectiveness of humanitarian response, and the relationship between famines and wars.

This compilation is a valuable reminder of the complexity of famine’s causes—often oversimplified to external factors like erratic rain patterns and conflicts—and on the means to address them. Although it is not the primary responsibility of humanitarian actors to address these causes, it is essential for them to better understand the complex environments in which massive relief operations take place. This is particularly relevant to the possible diversion and manipulation of humanitarian assistance by warring parties in Somalia.

The experience acquired by the humanitarian community within the last three decades—usefully compiled in this issue—should inspire relief efforts aimed at building up the resilience of affected communities and supporting them to broker the kind of “social contract” Alex de Waal describes in one of the essays as being necessary to avoid a relapse into famine in the long run.