Thank you to the Center for Strategic and International Studies for hosting me today and to USAID and the Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance for supporting this important conference. Today’s conversation has highlighted some of the best ideas in humanitarian innovation.  These are much needed.  As the largest impact evaluation agency in the humanitarian sector, IRC is committed to the idea that we need to up our game, not just do more of the same. 

While the discussion at the conference today has been broad-ranging, my focus is more narrow. I’d like to start not with an innovation, but with a crisis and how innovation speaks to the challenge at hand.

Investment in research and people-centered design has proved its worth where it has been used, but we need more of it to bridge the gap between needs and provision.  Nowhere is this more clear than in the case of the current food crisis in East Africa.  The three countries of Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya represent 2 per cent of the world population but 70 per cent of extreme food insecurity (IPC level 5).  And they represent a cautionary tale about what happens when we fail to marry innovation in the humanitarian sector with action by policymakers.

The food security crisis in East Africa is projected to be the deadliest this century – a terrible blow to the people of Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya and an especially telling stain on the international system because the advances in disaster forecasting, such as FEWSnet and the WFP Hunger Map, have given us the tools to pre-empt and prevent famine not just react to its declaration. 

That is why my call today is for all of us – donors, think tanks, UN agencies, UN member states and NGOs – to address the threat of famine by looking through the windshield not through the rear-view mirror.  Once famine is declared, it is too late for too many.

As Dr. Abdirizak has just made clear, speaking from an IRC clinic in Mogadishu, we know enough to take action now.  Following Samantha Power’s welcome announcement of an additional $1.2 billion in US funding yesterday, other donors need to respond in kind, and implementers need to deliver support to meet needs. 

The announcement of funds by USAID is a good first step, but must not be the last one.  The fact that the UK contribution to fighting famine in East Africa is only one-fifth of what it did in 2016/17 shows the scale of the problem, and the gap that needs to be filled. 


IRC has been operating in East Africa for more than 40 years and currently has 2,000 staff in the region, the overwhelming majority of whom are locally recruited. We know the humanitarian challenges and the ebbs and flows of food crisis in the region well. What we are seeing today is unprecedented and alarms us in a way that we cannot ignore.

That’s why for the first time ever, the IRC is putting out a mid-year Crisis Alert today as an addition to our annual Emergency Watchlist report which was published last December. It calls for urgent action in Somalia, Ethiopia, and Kenya to respond to the emerging famine.

These three countries in the Horn of Africa are in the eye of a perfect storm of crises that are threatening the lives and wellbeing of millions of people. Millions across the region are going hungry due to the combination of structural and contingent factors.

 The long term, structural factors are conflict and climate change which have made the region especially vulnerable.  But these countries have also been disproportionately affected by the Ukraine conflict, given that they were reliant on Russia and Ukraine for 90% of their wheat imports.  Rising prices have made food unaffordable for many families.

The cost of a food basket has risen by 66% in Ethiopia and 36% in Somalia since last year. According to IRC’s clients, prices for staples like sugar, cooking oil, and grains have tripled.  And it is worth pointing out that while Ukraine represents 5% of humanitarian need, it is receiving 20% of global aid.

As a result, the number of people going hungry in the region is set to surpass 20 million by September – nearly a doubling compared to late 2021. These three countries make up just 2% of the world’s population, but 12% of people in need of aid worldwide, 12% of the world’s malnourished children, and 70% of the most extreme food insecure – IPC 5.

The worst effects are in Somalia, which is now entering a famine that the IRC expects to be twice as severe as the 2011 famine that killed 260,000 people. IRC teams on the ground report that people have already started dying from starvation and the window to prevent mass deaths is rapidly closing. Hunger is worsening week by week, outstripping the limited funds available. Since April, the number of people already facing famine conditions – and risk of death – in Somalia has risen by 160%. 

When famine hits, it is a children’s crisis. During the 2011 famine in Somalia, half of the deaths were children under five years old. It was infants and toddlers who bore the brunt of global inaction. Today 7.1 million children in East Africa are acutely malnourished, including nearly half of all children in Somalia.

It’s important to understand that food crises like these have generational impacts. As people become increasingly desperate, they are leaving their homes behind and moving in search of food, water and aid, even if that means walking for days, crossing into neighboring countries, and taking dangerous routes. 1.1 million people in the region are already displaced due to drought with death and misery on route.


In 2011, the UN declaration of the famine came months too late – at least half of all the deaths that occurred during the famine had already occurred by the time the famine was declared.

It was clear we needed to act earlier.  Innovation was meant to ensure that we could see these famines coming and act to stop them before lives were lost. The call was “never again”.  And since the end of 2020, early warning systems have accurately identified deteriorating conditions across East Africa. Improvements in climate tracking and drought prediction helped us see this crisis coming from a mile away.

But innovation we’ve seen in climate data and predictive analysis has not prevented this crisis because the alarm bells have not catalyzed action. The international community knows how to respond effectively to the risk of famine, having done so before in the region in 2017, but this time it has failed to launch pre-emptive, early action.

This failure has three aspects.

This is a failure of prevention: Social safety nets weren’t scaled up, disaster preparedness and resilience building initiatives have not been at scale, anticipatory action has been limited, and existing funding hasn’t been flexible enough.

It is a failure of mitigation and response: The international systems meant to respond to crises like these have failed to mobilize at the speed and size required to prevent a famine from occurring. Funding shortfalls in particular have had a devastating effect – WFP has been forced to suspend malnutrition prevention programs in Somalia and cut in half food rations for refugees in Ethiopia and Kenya. While the international support to Ukrainians suffering in the war is laudable, it is not acceptable that the average Somali in need receives less than a third of what the average Ukrainian in need receives from donors.

And it is a failure of political will: Leadership is critical to galvanize action among donors and international institutions. While the US government has made significant funding commitments, including almost half of the $4.4 billion pledged by the G7 in June and an additional $1.2 billion announced by Administrator Power yesterday, we haven’t seen the sort of coordinated global response necessary to halt the famine.


Here’s what we need to do now to avert the coming famine:

First, we need to activate the humanitarian system. This entails declaring a system-wide scale up to mobilize the resources and capacity required for an emergency response like this. We need to establish a humanitarian contact group to assess progress and allocate resources so we can act as a system, not a sector. Other important actions include donor coordination mechanisms with NGOs, clarification of leadership and lines of accountability for response delivery, and the adoption and scale up of proven solutions such as cash assistance and expanded social safety net mechanisms.

The most important innovation required in this space is the expansion of local partnerships, building accountability to flow downwards to clients not just upwards to donors. Partnering with women-led civil society organizations is critical, particularly in a food security crisis like this, where women and girls are disproportionately affected by the effects and yet are also uniquely placed to drive climate resilience and food security given their frequent role as producers, sellers and preparers of food and their management of resources like water, firewood and fodder. IRC has started working with a series of women-led local grant-making networks to push funding and just as important, decision-making about funding even further into the hands of local civil society.

Second, we need to adopt a ‘no regrets’ approach to funding. This means fully funding the $4.4 billion humanitarian appear; scaling up donor capacity to move rapidly disburse funding to national and international frontline responders; and ensuring funding Is flexible, including by providing top ups to current implementing partners. Funding should focus on the core sectors and interventions required to avert unnecessary deaths. I was very pleased to see Samantha Power emphasize yesterday that while food aid is vital, it must be matched with urgent support to life saving health and water and sanitation activities to address existing and future disease outbreaks, as well as programs that address the secondary protection impacts of the food crisis and associated displacement.

The recent agreement by the Grand Bargain Quality Funding Caucus to commit to more multi-year funding, channeled to frontline responders, with greater flexibility in the arrangements represents a critical step in the right direction. This is particularly important as the gap between funding and needs continues to grow because longer term programming is more cost effect. An analysis of two IRC cash programs in Somalia found that the longer-term programming cost 44% less in delivery for every dollar transferred. This means that multiyear financing is ensuring that more money ends up in the hands of Somalis for whom that 44% gain might be the difference between being able to feed their families or not.

The expansion of cash programming is another important change in how the humanitarian sector operates. For example, in Nigeria the IRC is supporting farmers and livestock owners by piloting the use of early warning systems and anticipatory cash to protect from floods. That’s the sort of work that needs to be prevalent throughout all climate-vulnerable communities.

Third, we need to mobilize resources for humanitarian access negotiations. This requires funding humanitarian access roles globally and locally for East Africa, such as the UN Special Advisor on humanitarian access, which member states blocked during the UN’s budget committee negotiations. These roles are critical to ensure humanitarian aid can reach the large population at risk under the control of groups like al-Shabaab in Somalia. The Security Council and member states like the US should also carefully weigh the humanitarian fallout of any new counter-terrorism designations. The US designation of al-Shabaab created serious obstacles to the famine response of 2011. We can avoid repeating those mistakes with clearer humanitarian exemptions. 

Fourth, we need to address global trade challenges stemming from the war in Ukraine. This means pursuing all avenues to restart exports from Ukraine – the Turkish-led negotiations are vital, but other solutions are viable and complementary, and include facilitating overland exports via Poland or restoring river ports on the Danube. It is also critical to ease export restrictions on food, fuel, and fertilizer around the world.

The ongoing Russian blockade of Ukrainian grain exports along with mounting evidence that Russian forces are illegally seizing grain is one of the many acts of impunity we’ve seen in this war. That these actions are contributing to famine in places like East Africa without any accountability so far is yet another sign we are living in an Age of Impunity.

Going forward, there is pressing need for more structural solutions to break the cycle of drought, food crisis and famine moving forward.  Here are two areas where IRC will be stepping up:

The first is climate resilient agriculture. We need more investment and innovation to support the resilience of agro-pastoralist livelihoods. This is critical area of focus for the IRC, and one of our Global Research and Innovation Priorities. We are pioneering new innovations in seed security, information access, and disaster-risk reduction. Our aim in these shifts is to reduce poverty and food insecurity by enabling people and institutions to absorb, adapt, and response to shocks. One dollar spent on early response and resilience saves three dollars in income and livestock losses.

The private sector has an important role to play in supporting community resilience, promoting food security, and access to sustainable livelihoods. For example, in Cote d’Ivoire, IRC has partnered with cotton sourcing company Olam/SECO to work with young farmers over the course of four years to integrate them into the company’s cotton supply chain and meaningful invest in their skills. The project has allowed IRC to negotiate improved access for young farmers to productive land. Critically, over the course of the project, Olam supports youth participants to with technical training and access to quality inputs on a credit basis, followed by ongoing support through farmers’ groups and markets, while in parallel, the IRC provides comprehensive business skill training, mentorship, and support around business plan development.

This is an important complement to the work supported by BHA, such as the Academic Alliance for Anticipatory Action to better understand how anticipatory action like cash transfer in advance of projected poor harvests can help mitigate shocks, or the IGNITE project, supported by BHA and WFP, to strengthen the resilience of local food systems.

The second is a combined simplified protocol for malnutrition treatment. Innovation that creates impact happens when we apply lessons from previous efforts and take bold, new approaches to better serve our clients. Perhaps no innovation is more essential now than the IRC’s call for a combined, simplified protocol for malnutrition treatment. Just 20% of children who suffer from wasting receive the lifesaving care they need due to a woefully underfunded and uncoordinated system.

A growing body of evidence, led by IRC’s research, shows that a simplified combined protocol, family diagnosis, and treatment delivery by community health workers are equally effective as traditional approaches in diagnosing and treating both moderate and severe acute malnutrition. UNICEF, the lead UN agency on wasting, has a vital role to play in leading these practice changes.

But for now, structural solutions will not address the hunger that we are seeing today.  We need action not planning.  Given the system failure that we have seen, that would itself be an innovation.