|Drought and Famine - 1st edition (Department of Humanitarian Affairs/United Nations Disaster Relief Office - Disaster Management Training Programme - United Nations Development Programme , 1992, 52 p.)|
|PART 2: Famine|
Because famines develop over a period of months and, sometimes, years it is possible to detect their development and give warning so that interventions can be made to limit their progress and avoid the destruction of livelihoods and increased mortality.
While the term "famine early warning system" did not appear until the 1970s, efforts to monitor indicators capable of providing "early" warning date back to Ancient Egypt where the level of the River Nile was closely monitored. However, with the exception of India which developed a sophisticated system of monitoring social conditions as part of the Famine Codes developed during the second half of the 19th Century, most of the efforts to provide warning of famines have, until at least the 1980s, focused on monitoring food production.
This focus on food production was due to the dominant view that famines were a product of a decline in food availability. In addition, many colonial administrations maintained District administrations and Statistical Departments which collected information on agricultural production and local conditions, and these systems formed the central component of the information systems which were used to indicate the existence of food shortages within the country.
During the last two decades many developing countries have, with donor encouragement and assistance, invested in and improved the coordination of their existing systems for reporting on meteorological, agricultural, crop marketing and other indicators, such as nutritional status, so that they are better able to provide "early warning" information. In most counties such systems have involved the creation of "Early Warning Units" located in an appropriate department of Central Government into which the Meteorological Departments, Agricultural Extension and Statistics Departments feed information. Within countries there may also be local level "Early Warning Systems". Often these are funded by NGOs and usually, but not always, feed into the government-run National Early Warning Systems.
In addition to these national systems there are other "Early Warning Systems" functioning at different levels. Thus, regional groupings such as CILSS (Permanent Inter-State Committee for Drought Control in the Sahel) in West Africa, SADCC (Southern African Development Coordinating Conference) have established Regional Early Warning Systems which combine the output of the national systems with information from other sources, such as remote sensing information from satellites. At the global level the FAO's Global Information and Early Warning System (GIEWS) also combines the output of the national and regional systems with information from other sources (FAO Crop Assessment Missions, NGO field staff reports). GIEWS is an important source of information for donor organizations.
Thus, it is now feasible for donors to be alerted to poor rains and the likelihood of a poor harvest half-way through a growing season. If the government issues an international appeal or makes a purchase on the world market just as the much reduced harvest is being brought in, then the first food shipments may arrive in three or more months to be used either to maintain supplies within the marketing system or for use in "food for work" or free distribution programs.
As noted above most early warning systems focus upon indicators of food production and availability rather than the status of the food entitlements of different groups. These early warning systems frequently use "Food Balance Sheets" in which estimates of food production, imports, exports, and consumption are combined to produce an estimate of the aggregate shortfall that needs to be made up by commercial imports or food aid.
Despite insights gained from Entitlement Theory, it has generally proven difficult to make decision-making systems sensitive to the fact that famines may occur in areas not experiencing a decline in overall food availability.
Famines may occur in areas not experiencing a decline in overall food availability.
PROBLEMS WITH THE INTERPRETATION OF THE RESULTS OF NUTRITION SURVEYS
Many Governments and donor organizations attach considerable importance to nutritional status information as an indicator of the extent to which famine conditions are present in a population and thus of the need for the provision of food relief. This attitude can be largely attributed to the following factors:
i) nutrition surveys focus on children aged 1-5 who are the most physiologically vulnerable. Furthermore, malnutrition among this group proves more compelling than among others in the community;
While there is undoubtedly a role for nutritional surveillance as a food security monitoring tool, its usefulness is probably more limited than is commonly recognized by most relief agencies and donor organizations. While in richer countries nutritional status often involves continuous clinic-based monitoring which may be conducted in a reliable manner, in much of Sub-Saharan Africa it involves the anthropometric measurement (weight and height) of children in periodic surveys, the results of which are often unclear.
Confounding variables such as disease may significantly affect the rates of malnutrition. Thus, a survey in a village where poor water quality has led to a high incidence of diarrhoeal diseases may result in very high weight-for-height estimates. The most appropriate response in such a situation would be to provide oral-rehydration therapy and measures to improve water quality in addition to food relief. In some instances food relief may not be required at all. Thus, as a guide for the need for food relief interventions, nutritional status can be misleading.
The out-migration from the affected area and increased mortality frequently associated with periods of severe transitory food insecurity and famine introduces bias into nutritional surveys.
Unexpectedly low rates of malnutrition may, rightly or wrongly, be interpreted as being affected by the death or out-migration of the most severely malnourished and their non-inclusion in the sample.
In order that nutrition surveys yield statistically valid results it is necessary to have large sample sizes and follow strict research protocols. In areas of poor infrastructure such surveys are costly in terms of the logistical support and the time of skilled staff. During relief programmes when skilled staff are often in short supply and face many other demands on their time, the opportunity costs of carrying out large surveys are high. As a result of the pressures and logistical difficulties the strict protocols are not always followed and the results may not be meaningful.
Observer error (i.e. measurement errors by the assessment team) can become significant unless the assessment teams are subject to regular observer evaluations and retraining. An experiment by two NGO nutritional assessment teams in Sudan in 1985 which involved the measurement of the same 131 children resulted in one NGO estimating that 24% of the sample were less than 80% of the weight for height standard while the other NGO estimated that 48% were less than 80% of the weight for height standard (Soeters 1988).
As a result of the above factors, a gradually emerging consensus among experienced relief agencies is that while periodic anthropometric surveys do provide useful information for food needs assessments and the design of appropriate interventions. Other data gathering techniques should be used to complement anthropometric surveys. A growing trend among such agencies is, therefore, to reduce the resources devoted to anthropometric surveys to a minimum and to increase the resources devoted to the collection of "socio-economic" information such as alternative income sources, coping mechanisms and access to "famine foods", which are able to provide a fuller picture of food needs and help inform decisions regarding appropriate interventions.
While many systems claim to make use of information on the status of entitlements (food prices, current coping strategies), such information is generally given less weight than the food balance sheet and, where it is available, nutritional status information. This may be attributed, in part, to the following factors:
· incomplete knowledge of coping strategies;
· coping strategies vary according to location, socio-economic group and passage of time thus limiting their use as objective predictors;
· data on food production and nutritional status are perceived to be more objective than information on coping strategies (See Box 7).
· many developing country governments and donor organizations see the role of emergency assistance as preventing mortality; others view emergency food aid as a means to prevent destitution and loss of livelihoods, as well as to rehabilitate damaged infrastructure and property, reconstitute or recover damaged or lost resources, and proceed with productive activities.
CASE STUDY: EARLY WARNING IS NOT ENOUGH
The Ethiopian Famine of 1984-85 resulted in total excess mortality of 0.4-0.5 million. It was caused by the complex interplay of a number of factors including drought, civil war, the poor performance of the Ethiopian Government and its unpopularity with western donors. The nature of the interplay and the relative contribution of each factor is still a matter of dispute, but the fact is that it occurred in a country which, following the famine of 1973-5, had set up an early warning system which was considerably more sophisticated than then existed in most other countries in Africa.
Northern areas of the country experienced poor rains in 1983 and 1984. Significant parts of the northern provinces of Eritrea and Tigray were under the effective control of rebel movements. Up to half the GNP was being expended on the civil war. Using the reports produced by the early warning system, the government appealed to the international community for assistance on several occasions throughout 1983 and 1984. Some donors responded in 1983 but the response to the crucial March 1984 appeal, which had requested a total of 450,000 tons of grain, was very poor. Among the reasons contributing to the poor response to the March Appeal were:
· the donors felt the earlier appeals had been exaggerated;
In March 1984 a crucial FAO/WFP food aid assessment mission visited the country. While recognizing that the gravity of the situation warranted the provision of 685,000 tons of emergency food aid, the mission concluded that unless the handling capacity of the ports was improved, only 125,000 tons could be managed. Discussions with the government on the mission were prolonged, and by the time the report was issued in June, the crisis had worsened due to the failure of the "Beig" crop. The NGOs in the country increased their pressure on donors and their own relief efforts. In August the government issued another appeal but this was at a time when the government was preparing for the 10th Anniversary celebrations of the 1974 Revolution and downplayed the existence of the famine. At the beginning of Oct., following the celebrations, travel restrictions to the affected area were eased and donors began the process of mobilizing assistance, but even at this late stage there was a failure to appreciate the unprecedented scale of assistance that would be required. On October 21st, the BBC broadcasted a news report from one of the feeding camps which was quickly transmitted around the world and evoked an immediate and unprecedented international response.
While the substantial investments made in Early Warning Systems over the last two decades have probably led to more timely interventions in many instances, reviews of the performance of early warning systems frequently conclude that the linkages between early warning and response are weak. There have been several instances over recent years where, despite advance warnings, the response by governments of the affected country and the international community have been too late to prevent widespread destitution and mortality (see Box 8).
Q. What data are useful in designing "early warning systems"?
| || |
Early warning systems often rely on data such as rainfall, food production, crop marketing, and nutritional surveys.