Famine forecasting systems still failing to spur action

Although preventable through early warning systems, famine crises continue Copyright: Flickr/SodexoUSA

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[LONDON] Further scientific improvements to famine forecasting will do little to save more lives without reforms to the way in which the humanitarian community uses them, according to a report published today (5 April).

Despite being preventable because of sophisticated early warning systems, famine crises continue to be deadly. This is because warnings are systematically ignored by donor governments, agencies and governments in affected countries, says the report, published by Chatham House, an independent think-tank based in London, United Kingdom.


  • Famine forecasting systems have improved dramatically over the last 30 years, says a report
  • But governments and agencies continue to ignore their warnings
  • Political hurdles must be tackled if progress is to be made

"The question we are asking in the report is why early warning systems — which have dramatically improved over the last 20–30 years — are good at predicting crises but bad at triggering preventive action," says the author, Rob Bailey, a senior research fellow at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, which is based at Chatham House.

The report, ‘Managing Famine Risk: Linking Early Warning to Early Action’, draws on experiences from recent famines in the Horn and Sahel regions of Africa, where little action was taken regardless of warnings being issued months ahead, as SciDev.Net revealed in 2011.

A food crisis is a "slow-onset disaster", it says, that allows plenty of time to anticipate the problem and take precautionary action.

But while the warning side of this equation works well, the precautionary actions side commonly fails for a variety of reasons, and the report offers recommendations to help bridge the gap between early warnings and responses.

While governments in affected countries should focus on building capacity and reducing vulnerability among at-risk groups, humanitarian agencies need to improve their preparedness by taking initiatives such as arranging for emergency supplies, it says.

"A mechanism that can provide funding early on in a crisis, in response to risk factor triggers for a drought event, is one of the things donor governments need to think about," says Bailey.

Donor governments can achieve this by encouraging pooled funding mechanisms, the report says.

Although early warning systems are fairly advanced for some regions because of technological innovations including satellites, mobile phones, and other information and communication technologies, the report suggests that many governments still need to invest in early warning systems at the national level.

"It is often the case that the most vulnerable communities do not have access to information in a form they can access and use," explains Bailey.

But he cautions that it is easier to focus on improving early warning systems than it is to address some of the institutional and political failures that prevail in the humanitarian system.

"Unless we start dealing with [the political failures] we are not going to get better at preventing famines," he warns.

Link to full report [PDF 3MB]