• 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
  • In 2011, 260,000 died of starvation - equivalent to 6.5 million deaths in the US

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, importing90% of its wheat from Russia and Ukraine alone. The 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. 

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 mobilization 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.” 

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. Mobilize 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.