6 Oct

I completely agree with Morealtitude that The Mass Media commentary on the Horn of Africa is irretrievably beset with dumbassery. (Yes, and thank you very much BBC and CNN. We would have never thought to ponder “long-term solutions” without your prompting.)  And I am positively bored to the point of tears by yet another article banging on about how a “dysfunctional aid system” is the reason why things suck in The Horn. Seriously, AlertNet. You can do better. (By contrast, I love love LOVE the fact that in said article a bunch of UN and think-tank peeps, quoted as ‘experts’, decry the dysfunction of a bloated, donor-driven, bureaucracy. It’s a whole new spin on “working yourself out of a job.”)

But we’re losing the plot on the Horn of Africa. For once, I think it’s time to make this very simple: The Horn of Africa is in trouble. 

The Horn of Africa is in trouble, but not at all because the aid system is dysfunctional (the aid system is dysfunctional – this is not news). Even so, it’s a sobering day for the aid community. It’s a sobering day because everything True about the situation, about what’s involved in a humanitarian response, and what a long-term solution might possibly look like in The Horn goes directly against everything that we, the INGOs, have spent the past thirty years miseducating our donors and ourselves to believe.

Aid marketing I’d love to see, originally written as satire, applies literally here: Your $20 or $20,000,000 won’t end hunger. It is almost certain that at least part of your donation will help terrorists. And three years from now The Horn is still gonna suck. There’s no happy ending here, folks. At least not one that aid organizations can influence or ever take credit for.


Because despite everything we’ve deluded ourselves into believing about our own influence and relevance and capacity and skill, none – not a single one – of the root causes of the current Horn of Africa crisis are in any way within the capability of the aid system as we currently know it to even begin to fix. (And not just in The Horn, either – remember, Aid does not really fix anything.)

Linda Polman correctly points out that famines are almost never caused by lack of food. And that is absolutely true in the Horn of Africa right now. Sure, INGOs can scale up or go in if they weren’t there before and distribute food, do WASH, run some cross-border ops into different parts of Somalia, beef up services to the long-established “refugee” camps in places like Dadaab

But let’s be very clear: Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia have the collective power and resources to end the famine tomorrow. Moreover, the only real solution is for Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia (at an absolute minimum) to get their acts together acts together both individually and regionally, and engage the political will to make the necessary changes.

Anyone care to hazard a guess as to when that is going to happen?

While of course all of the isms of the aid blogosphere apply to The Horn (no magik bullets, no quick solutions, it’s about the land, it’s all very complicated and expensive…) the bigger message, really, for us in The Horn – as well as far, far more other places than we’d care to admit – is that we can’t fix it. I wrote once that it’s Haiti’s job to fix Haiti. And I’ll say it again, here. It’s the job of The Horn to fix The Horn. And only The Horn can fix The Horn.

We’re not building resilience. We’re not putting in place durable long-term solutions. We’re not enhancing local capacity (seriously, the local NGO with hands-down the best operational capacity in the entire region is Al-Shabaab). We’re not engaging grassroots stakeholders in participatory dialogue about co-envisioned preferred futures.

Until The Horn decides that it wants to sort itself out, we’re doing cyclical, unsustainable, expensive relief aid. Because this is our only real option. Simple as that.

14 Responses to “Simple”

  1. kayti 6 October, 2011 at 3:44 pm #

    “far, far more other places than we care to admit”
    You are without doubt correct here, with every solution sought there is an intrinsic need for the grass root stake holders not just to be in the negotiations but to be creating them, examining them and driving them forward, assisted yes, but aiding and abetting the governments who do not make the required effort to save their own people from famine is a crime.

    • J. 7 October, 2011 at 11:10 am #

      it all really comes down to how one defines “aiding and abetting”…

  2. hardcoreveganliz 6 October, 2011 at 4:01 pm #

    Have to agree with you on several points here- I wish that I could just call you a cynical hater, someone with no hope for the future after seeing so much go so wrong, but the situation in the Horn is not something that anyone outside of the Horn can control. It would be nice if we could just waltz in to a disaster situation and fix everything with our love and aid and shiny happy rainbows, but that is not ever the case- the situation in the Horn is one of politics, war, religious and ethnic divisions- and until the players involved in the ordeal decide to address these issues, nothing will change. All we can do is our best to help those we can, even though the larger picture for the long term future is bleak.

  3. maria 7 October, 2011 at 2:12 am #


  4. ...from this side of the world... 7 October, 2011 at 3:15 am #

    I have to say that I like your posts as they move me. Sometimes I feel that I connect to them, some other times not…
    This time, and since we are doing a lot of work in the HoA, I decided to share it among my colleagues – yes, I also work for a humanitarian organization -.

    Personally, I think that you are a bit hard, but i think it’s good that someone “shakes” the conscience from the inside… however I have to say that you are not offering any solutions… but still, i have to confess, I like reading criticism…

    And I would like to share with you some of the comments:

    “What a load of rubbish…

    I think what he’s says is f… you, it’s your own fault, sort yourself out! Unfortunately, lack of rain is out of the horn’s control. Yes there are many factors in the horn that don’t make things easier. But I don’t see J offering any concrete solutions except for sort yourself out. Ha!

    Btw, Linda P is incorrect – there’s never been a famine without lack of food.”

    “Danger is that you won’t give any money, because what’s the point, my $20 or $20,000 will not end hunger….. In the meantime people are dying”.

    I think it’s good to have all kinds of feedback…

    • J. 7 October, 2011 at 11:08 am #

      Yep, I agree. Good to get varied feedback (still smiling about my first “fuck you” in the comments thread😀 ). Some interesting responses from your colleagues. It’s particularly interesting to me to note that very often people react to what I don’t say, as much as or even more than to what I do say. This feels to me like one of those instances.

      I think it’s important to stay clear on a few things, here:

      1) Acknowledging that at the end of the day The Horn (or any other place) is ultimately responsible for its own future and for resolving its own issues is hardly the same thing as saying it is to blame for the famine. We very often preach about the importance of local ownership, local agency, etc. I find it rather amazing that I get pushback from professional humanitarians, then, when I state the obvious – that it’s Haiti’s job to fix Haiti, or The Horn’s job to fix The Horn. We can – and I believe should – help…. see the next point.

      2) I never said there is no role for humanitarian organizations. Quite to the contrary, as a humanitarian I believe that “we” need to be there, responding to the very obvious humanitarian need. There is something called “the humanitarian imperative”, after all. BUT, and it is a very big ‘BUT’, we also need to keep our role in perspective. We’re not going to fix The Horn. We shouldn’t think that we will. We shouldn’t bullshit our donors with marketing which suggests that we will or even can. Because we can’t. And anyway, it’s not our job (see previous point).

  5. Sam (@ASamBurton) 7 October, 2011 at 11:20 am #

    “Because despite everything we’ve deluded ourselves into believing about our own influence and relevance and capacity and skill, none – not a single one – of the root causes of the current Horn of Africa crisis are in any way within the capability of the aid system as we currently know it to even begin to fix.”

    Thank you J, for this brazen, self-reflexive truth that no one–neither outside nor in aid and development communities–wants to face. But I think that, in order for *anything* we do to be effective, we must first acknowledge and work within the context of what we are actually *capable* of doing. Being aware of our limitations, no matter how harsh or daunting they may be, and acting with them in mind makes us better equipped to do what we can, as best we can.

    • J. 7 October, 2011 at 11:27 am #

      Sam – great point. I go back and forth between the optimistic “hell yeah, we make things better”, and the cynical “we’ve totally oversold our impact.” You can probably guess where I am at the moment.

      I agree, and have written many times on this blog, that we need to be as uncompromisingly honest about what we can and do do, as about what we can’t and don’t.

  6. mccxxiii 15 October, 2011 at 5:17 am #

    And *this* is why I don’t donate money to such organizations. African famine is un-solvable, and I want what little money I can give to go towards something *useful* and effective.

    • J. 15 October, 2011 at 6:19 pm #

      Mmmmmmm… I never said the famine was unsolvable. And I never said aid was ineffective.

      I think you misunderstand both this post and also the role and purpose of humanitarian aid.

  7. angelica 16 October, 2011 at 1:09 pm #

    OMG the man has balls! (well, we knew that, but this is particularly ballsy me thinks). And yeah, I agree. I started writing a longer reply but it got so long I turned it into a post…


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