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Cascading of crises in East Africa

Point of View, 29.05.2020 Forschungsgebiete

The Corona crisis joins a multitude of existing crises in East Africa. If the responses to the various challenges are not carefully coordinated, there is a blatant risk that hunger will spread in the region. An analysis by Bettina Rudloff and Annette Weber.

In East Africa, and particularly in the Horn of Africa, several crises are currently overlapping. For some time now, climate events such as droughts have been creating major food supply bottlenecks in addition to fuelling conflict and war. These events are being exacerbated by a locust swarm that originated in Yemen and has been growing exponentially since October 2019. One of the reasons for the phenomenon is the increasingly frequent climatic event the “India Ocean Drop”, which has led to high levels of humidity and flooding in recent years. By June 2020, locusts are expected to multiply a further 500 times, which poses a massive threat to the crops in the coming harvest, previously forecast to be profitable.

Covid-19 comes as an additional problem, and it is unclear how widespread the virus has already become in East Africa, as there has been little testing. But the official figures are rising, and the number of unreported cases is probably high. What is certain is that the confluence of the pandemic with other crises, as well as the responses to them, will lead to a cascade of problems – a dynamic known from the policy area of civil protection. As a result, a doubling of the number of people affected by extreme hunger has to be expected. 

Covid-19 measures exacerbate the food supply crisis

Health policy responses to Covid-19 are taking place within a frame of extremely limited medical capacities: In Somalia there are 0.028 doctors per 1,000 inhabitants; in Kenya it is just under 0.2 (Germany: 4.2). As in other countries, efforts are being made to expand health capacities and implement hygiene rules. However, the latter are often limited due to poor water infrastructure. In reaction to these limitations, countries in East Africa rely heavily on border closures, travel restrictions, and strict lockdowns to flatten the infection curve. However, it is precisely these measures that make securing the food supply and controlling the locust population more difficult, which in turn leads to further food shortages. This shows that an approach which focuses only on one crisis can exacerbate other crises. There are also different crisis dynamics in urban and rural areas, for which individual responses must be made. At the same time, they influence each other and must be considered together.

Covid-19 and the reactive measures to it reach the populations in cities first and fastest. Here, many of the people who work in the informal sector often live in very confined spaces. They are particularly hard hit by the mobility restrictions, as they are unable to generate income, build up food reserves, or provide for their families. In urban centres, however, it is in principle easier to deliver aid to the suffering populations than in the countrysides – even though Corona restrictions can disrupt the market connections to rural producers with limited mobility. The other heavily affected group is comprised of refugees – in East Africa there are more than 10 million internally displaced persons who are receiving hardly any support. Refugees living in camps are particularly vulnerable to Covid-19, but unlike the day labourers in the cities, they are supplied by external aid organisations.

The lower population densities in rural areas and the widespread subsistence economy tend to make the populations there less susceptible to health and supply risks than city dwellers. However, the majority of farmers still have to buy additional food because their own harvests are not sufficient. They are thus also affected by price increases and supply bottlenecks for food, but also for seeds and fodder, which can be due to the locusts as well as Corona-related border closures and mobility restrictions.

Reconciling health protection and security of supply

How should solutions be tailored to do justice to this complex situation with its many interdependent crises and problems? First of all, government agencies must find ways to connect towns and countrysides to supply markets in the towns and cities and enable providers in the countrysides to make a living. African experience in dealing with Ebola can also be drawn on, according to which health protection and security of supply could be well reconciled. In West Africa, for example, there were collection points for the domestic trade of food, in which only a few people – using personal protective equipment – were involved. East Africa and the Horn are also pioneers in cashless financial transactions. This makes it possible to provide direct financial support to endangered population groups instead of direct food aid. Aid is thus distributed more fairly, the population can decide for itself how best to use the money, depending on the local situation, and the domestic market is strengthened.

At the regional level, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development could provide coordination for the crisis response: Based on excellent networking, it has proven to be essential for information about Covid-19 in the region.

International efforts should be made to ensure the trade in food and feed, insecticides, and drones; trade restrictions on these essential goods in particular must be dismantled. It must also be ensured that aid workers can move freely on the ground. Rapid financial assistance is also needed to respond to the expected increase in locust swarms, something that has been decided now by donors such as the World Bank and the EU.

In all local, regional, and international approaches, the longer-term problem of climate change should be considered an underlying major driver for several crises.

This text was also published at fairobserver.com.