Des femmes et leurs enfants font la queue pour des soins médicaux au camp de réfugiés de Dadaab

Horn of Africa: the weaknesses of a controversial operation

Michaël Neuman

Director of studies at Crash / Médecins sans Frontières, Michaël Neuman graduated in Contemporary History and International Relations (University Paris-I). He joined Médecins sans Frontières in 1999 and has worked both on the ground (Balkans, Sudan, Caucasus, West Africa) and in headquarters (New York, Paris as deputy director responsible for programmes). He has also carried out research on issues of immigration and geopolitics. He is co-editor of "Humanitarian negotiations Revealed, the MSF experience" (London: Hurst and Co, 2011). He is also the co-editor of "Saving lives and staying alive. Humanitarian Security in the Age of Risk Management" (London: Hurst and Co, 2016).

In a report titled "A Dangerous Delay", Oxfam and Save the Children rebuke everyone - governments, humanitarian organisations, the United Nations - who participated in the humanitarian response to the food crisis that struck the Horn of Africa in recent months. The subtitle says it all, highlighting the cost of the delayed response to the early warnings of drought in the Horn of Africa in 2011. The two NGOs explain why they believe the humanitarian response to the crisis was delayed - a crisis whose nature, if not scope, is no longer questioned. The arguments advanced for the seriousness of such food crises and the best ways to combat them, however, remain subject to debate.

Save the Children and Oxfam believe the international response system failed and that it will be possible to save more lives during future crises by improving its ability to act in time and conduct long-term efforts. Some of the recommendations in the Oxfam and Save the Children report sound appropriate such as, for example, taking early warning systems in the Horn of Africa (FEWS, FSNAU, FSNWG, etc.) more seriously even though they are not foolproof. They did prove effective at anticipating the effects of climate variations, prices and political changes on the population's medical and nutritional status. But other recommendations are more akin to fantasy, such as those asking governments to support a "Charter to eradicate extreme hunger".

One of the report's most striking features, however, lies in its lack of a political perspective, regarding both the origin of the crisis, which is reduced to a weather phenomenon, and the recommended response. The sole focus falls on the technical failures, which could be remedied with systemic solutions. The report assigns no responsibility to the Somali al-Shabaab Islamist militants or the transitional government, who nevertheless made humanitarian work in the areas they control extremely difficult. Nor does it blame the region's governments - Ethiopian and Kenyan - for hindering the delivery of food aid and the population's ability to gain access.

Regardless of the type of crisis humanitarian groups are facing, the quality of their response always depends on the balance of forces they are able to establish with the authorities. Faced with political authorities determined to restrict aid, it cannot be denied that during this event, the balance of forces did not operate to the advantage of the humanitarian community.


To cite this content :
Michaël Neuman, “Horn of Africa: the weaknesses of a controversial operation”, 19 janvier 2012, URL :

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