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Global experts discuss how early action can help avert famine

By James Elder

FLORENCE, Italy, 18 April 2012 – The famine in the Horn of Africa and the unfolding crisis in the Sahel have sparked renewed debate on the underlying causes of such disasters, the tipping points and solutions.

VIDEO: Tens of thousands of children died in the famine in the Horn of Africa. A million are threatened in the Sahel. Are famine and nutrition crises preventable? How? Who is accountable?


In the latest edition of Research Watch – the eTV/magazine from UNICEF’s Office of Research – global experts discuss how malnourishment, drought, rising food prices, migration, conflict and climate change can be stopped from escalating into full-scale nutritional crises and famine.

Experts on averting famine

Averting Famine, Acting Early brings leading thinkers together in a studio Debate and through written commentaries, asking whether famine and nutrition crises are preventable, if so, how, and who, if anyone, is responsible.

“Whenever we have a famine in Africa we should ask ourselves why this happened, and why it wasn’t prevented,” said development economist Professor Stephen Devereux as part of The Debate. “We should be extremely angry – people are still dying unnecessarily, long after we have the capacity to end famine.”

© UNICEF/NYHQ2012-0243/Asselin
Malnourished 7-month-old Saamatou Bangou eats a ready-to-use therapeutic food in the health centre in Fada N’gourma, Burkina Faso.

Averting Famine, Acting Early includes discussion from the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier De Schutter; the co-founder and Executive Director of Horn of Africa Relief, Fatima Jibrell; author of 'Theories of Famine' and 'Food Security in Sub-Saharan Africa', Dr. Stephen Devereux; UNICEF Regional Director for Eastern and Southern Africa Elhadj As Sy; the ’Father of the Green Revolution in India‘, Professor M.S. Swaminathan; and Professor of Food, Nutrition and Public Policy at Cornell University, Per Pinstrup-Andersen.

Combining vast knowledge and experience, they point to essential keys to end nutritional crises and famine, including: transformational technologies; establishing ‘ready-to-go, off-the-shelf interventions’; national social protection strategies; mechanisms to deal with food price volatility; stability and accountability; and finally, while early warning systems are much improved, it is argued that current famine scales don’t trigger a response before children become severely malnourished.

Planning for future emergencies

“An emergency response is better prepared in times of non-emergency,” said As Sy, UNICEF Eastern and Southern Africa Regional Director. “It is time now to work on good governance structures; it is time now to have good plans; time now to project ourselves into the future with multi-year programming and funding so that the readiness to respond before it is too late is there. Now is the time to put the message out there, to work with our partners, to pull the trigger on early warning so that early action can happen.”

© UNICEF/NYHQ2012-0242/ Laurent Duvillier
On 4 April, UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake speaks with a woman and her child in a nutrition centre in Mao, Chad.

It is an approach emphasized by UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake on a recent visit to western Chad. He called for an urgent escalation of humanitarian efforts to stop the crisis in the Sahel and made renewed calls for tackling the region’s high levels of malnutrition through improved health systems, social services, social protection, and support for sustainable livelihoods and behaviour change.

“This is not just about saving lives today,” said Mr. Lake. “It’s about preventing new emergencies tomorrow...”

To read the Commentaries in full, or watch The Debate, go to www.unicef-irc.org



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