Translating early warning into early action

No one can say they did not see last year’s food crisis in East Africa coming; there was almost a year of increasingly strong warnings, but it was not until Somalia was formally declared to be in a state of famine that substantial funding finally started coming in.

After this, just the latest of a long series of failures to translate early warnings into timely action, researchers at London’s Chatham House embarked on a project to try to find out why.

Rob Bailey, who is leading the project, says previous research had tended to focus on technical issues. “If only we could improve the early warning information; if only we could improve the way organizations coordinate with each other, then we would be able to get a better response. This has been the focus in research and policymaking for the past couple of decades, and yet it has only really demonstrated marginal improvements at best, and it did nothing at all in the case of Somalia last year.”

Instead Bailey says he wants to understand why delay is the typical outcome of the decision-making process, and why politicians, nationally and internationally, might be unwilling to acknowledge a crisis and respond early on. Some pointers have already emerged.

Participants in discussions organized by the project have suggested that the current pressure for greater accountability and value for money may cause problems.

A drought is no one’s fault, but the decision to spend large sums of public money on a crisis which doesn’t materialize can be traced back to an individual, with potentially career-threatening consequences. And modern communication systems, like email, can diffuse information widely, while allowing everyone to leave the decision to someone else. Something as simple as demanding an explicit decision, even if that decision is not to act, could remove some of the perverse incentives to inaction.

Decision-makers also prefer a high degree certainty, for instance over how many people are going to die if they do not take action, and that is a degree of certainty that forecasters do not always feel able to give. Gary Eilerts, programme manager for USAID’s Famine Early Warning System, FEWS NET, says rapid improvements in communications mean that the forecasts are now more accurate than ever before.

“It’s much easier to get information from distant localities,” he told IRIN, “and of a much broader nature, and it’s just increased everybody’s ability to understand what’s going on… but there’s still a substantial residue of uncertainty when we put all these indicators and this data together, so that we can still have a divergence in how people analyse it, and how we determine what the right response should be.”

And FEWS NET deals with governments - just one or two people in each country, says Eilerts. “We put a high premium on trying to work within regional and national systems,” he says, “because ultimately they have the responsibility to the people.”

A Question of Dignity
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So a lot of the speed of response depends on the systems - and the attitude - of national governments. Systems can be improved. The annual rainfall pattern across the Sahel means that as early as October it is clear whether or not the rains have been adequate, and whether there is likely to be a food crisis the following year. Mandatory meetings scheduled in October to review the position and consider a menu of options could start the ball rolling sooner.

The primacy of politics

But technical improvements can only do so much; beyond a certain point it is down to politics. Last year in East Africa, Kenya and Ethiopia responded very differently. In Kenya the food crisis disproportionately affected Somali-speaking areas. Kenya has a substantial number of Somali-speaking voters, and an election on the horizon. And if the government had any doubts that the issue was important to its electorate, they would have been dissipated by the impressive public response to a Kenyan Red Cross appeal for the affected area.

For the Ethiopian government the political dynamic was different, with less likelihood of being voted out of office for a slow response, and a strong desire to change the international discourse on Ethiopia from drought and famine, to investment and opportunity. The consequent reluctance to publicly declare a crisis meant a late and less effective response.

But they did acknowledge a problem. In the most notorious example of politics negating early warning, the former President of Niger, Mamadou Tandja, denied there was famine or even hunger in his country despite having the most effective national early warning system in West Africa, something which eventually contributed to his overthrow in a coup d’etat.

The man now in charge of Niger’s food security programme, Amadou Allahoury Diallo, says the early warning system remained in place, even during the period when the government was refusing to recognize its warnings. “Even though it denied the figures,” Allahoury Diallo told IRIN, “the government still needed an information system; it could do what it chose with that information, but it still needed to know.”

So what makes a government see a crisis and refuse to act? Allahoury Diallo says it is a state of mind. “Maybe the government was embarrassed, or ashamed to admit how bad the situation was. Nowadays we think differently. We have a democratically elected government which is under an obligation to deliver. And we know that even if you lie to the outside world, you can’t lie to your own people, since they are living with the reality of the situation every day.”

Chatham House is finding that a lot comes back to politics. Says Rob Bailey: “A lot of it comes down to trying to understand the incentives that politicians themselves are operating under - what are the costs and benefits that they are weighing up in their own minds when deciding whether or not to respond to early warnings.

“Then the question becomes: ‘How can you begin to shift that political calculus? How can you try to reduce the costs that politicians might incur from responding early, and how can you increase the benefits, the rewards that they might reap if they are able to prevent a crisis?’ Finally, institutions matter, but politics matter most.”

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