The Boma

How to stop drought aid 'coming with the vultures'

December 06, 2022 International Livestock Research Institute Season 3 Episode 2
The Boma
How to stop drought aid 'coming with the vultures'
Show Notes Transcript

"You guys are coming when we have really suffered, when we have lost half of our herd and also when the vultures are descending from the sky."

So said a Kenyan pastoralist at a meeting about drought response.  What is being done to anticipate drought, rather than to deal with the consequences?  In this episode we look at the effects of the ongoing drought in the Horn of Africa, with 17 million people facing hunger and a fifth rainy season on the way.

Experts from the Jameel Observatory, including Guyo Roba, head of the observatory, affiliate researcher Gary Watmough, and Stephen Mutiso from Save the Children, explain how we can hone drought preparation through collaboration and action. 

Jameel Observatory
Famine Early Warning System Network (FEWS NET)
A Dangerous Delay 2: The Cost of Inaction - a report by Jameel Observatory, Save the Children, and Oxfam

Scripted by Madison Spinelli, Princeton-In-Africa Fellow at ILRI.

The Jameel Observatory and anticipatory drought response: how can we beat the Vultures?

Welcome back to the Boma, a podcast from the International Livestock Research Institute looking at how sustainable livestock is building better lives in the Global South. I’m Annabel Slater and today we’re talking about the drought that is devastating the Horn of Africa, where 17 million people are going hungry. Many people in the Horn of Africa rely on livestock for their livelihoods, and people and animals are suffering.

We’ll look at the issue with experts from the Jameel Observatory in Nairobi, Kenya which was established last year to improve the way governments and NGOs respond to droughts.  Here's Guyo Roba , head of the observatory talking about a comment made by a Kenyan Pastoralist at a community meeting. 

Guyo Malicha Roba

An elder said there is a lot of activity and so many cars and people coming when when, when the drought is at the emergency stage and and he said you guys are coming when we have really suffered, when they have lost half of our herd and also when the vultures are descending from the sky.

And he said, since you guys are coming at the same time when the vultures are descending, then it's very hard to distinguish us from the vultures. And he said, If you want them to respect our, you know, our engagement, our partnership, we should come 2 to 3 months before the vultures. Then they will also know that these are the people who are here to help us, not the like Vultures who are coming to feast on the dead animals.


How can we beat the Vultures? Today’s drought early warning systems are more accurate than ever before. For example, there were already signs of poor rain in southern Somalia in March 2020 and the Famine Early Warning Systems Network, better known as FEWS NET, sounded the alarm . By August 2020, FEWS NET predicted the next two rainy seasons would be poor. Now, in November 2022, four consecutive rainy seasons have failed, with the possibility of a fifth on the way. That’s why the Horn of Africa is suffering this severe drought and famine. 

So if the early warning system did its job – warning about a poor rainy season -- why does aid still come with the vultures? First, we turn to Stephen Mutiso- a Save the Children’s Food Security and Livelihoods Advisor for the East African region - to understand the current drought and its impact on the region’s people. 


Stephen Mutiso

The current drought started in 2020 and the water we have seen is a departure from what we know about the drought within the Horn of Africa. Historically, what we know is that every 2 to 5, we have a major drought event. But that is not what we have seen in the last 2 to 3 years.

We have seen drought taking almost two years now where people are suffering. So the main driver for this ongoing drought is climate change. 


Drought is catastrophic because it has many consequences. Drought makes it harder for people to care for livestock and produce crops, which raises the price of food, putting whole communities at risk of hunger and loss of livelihoods. The situation also exacerbates local tensions and conflict. 

And the other major driver, of course, apart from the climatic driver, is conflict that we have seen in some of the countries in the region and to some extent some drought, some conflict activities.

We have Tigray in Ethiopia. You know what is happening in Sudan, Somalia getting protracted conflict, which again was this a climate induced drought. But also some of the things that we have also seen there was a need. The drought within the region is also of economic hardship, like a major one is around inflation.

We have seen in Sudan that the inflation, especially for food, has been a major issue for the last 2 to 3 years. Now, the same case with South Sudan, where inflation has largely been a major, major issue since 2017 that we have seen now food prices going up and that people are unable to access food even when we have food to the market.

The consequences of drought, hunger and conflict ultimately affect millions of people. 

So, what we have seen in most of the countries is that the cereal production for major staples like maize it just be around the 50% of the long-term average, meaning that they are producing almost 50% of what they should be producing in a typical or normal year. And what this has translated into is that we have high populations that are facing what we call acute food insecurity.

For example, in Kenya, we are talking about 4.3 million Kenyans who are classified as being under a crisis, the crisis and above meaning that at the end of the crisis, emergency or even a higher than that, in Somalia, we are talking about a 4.2 million people. In Ethiopia, the numbers are even higher, 8.5 million people who are facing acute food insecurity.

Guyo Roba agrees. The effects of drought are truly multi-dimensional. Beyond the food insecurity it causes, the effects ripple into the economy, especially amongst people who rely on livestock for nutrition and as their source of savings.

Guyo Roba

 drought affects the economy. Economically, I think because of the food scarcity, the food prices rises, the supply question is not comes in the supply is broken

And at the same time, I think especially because people's purchasing power goes down, if they largely depend on livestock, they have to sell livestock to get other products that they consume. So if your livestock body condition is not very good, it could 

fetch less prices. And it means that I think you can't cater for your household needs.

So that has a direct economic implication. But then there's also the livelihood implication. Basically, if you are depending on livestock that gives you milk and other products, then when these animals body conditions are not good. Then basically it means that the household cannot sustain itself. 

There’s clearly a lot to do to help people weather the drought, with options in each of the areas that Guyo Roba mentioned. So, what’s the problem? Why isn’t aid reaching the people who need it?

 Guyo says that even if early warnings and recommendations are made, there isn’t enough timely support and funding from the international community.

Guyo Malicha Roba

 I think a good example in Kenya, you know, we have the drought bulletin that comes out every month, is done religiously by NDMA, with very good recommendation of the project at every phase of the drought in January they say, do strategic borehole, manage animal diseases and etc..

The National Drought Management Authority, or NDMA, is the governing body in Kenya responsible for coordination over all matters related to drought risk management. It works to mitigate drought emergencies, and its early warning drought system actively monitors conditions to produce a monthly bulletin of recommendations. 

But then unfortunately, all this recommendation has not merged by any sort of, you know, funding implementation structure. So by third month from the first month, you find that the bulletin gives different recommendations. So as you approach the emergency stage, if you have done few things, you would have actually build the resilience of the community. If you do a borehole that they say you do in January and February, then to enable mobility, access or something pasture areas, it will actually have implication on the on the on and on the resilience of the communities to drought.


And maybe another issue is that the systems aren’t actually preparing for drought. They’re responding to problems that are already happening or working to mediate the resulting effects. Much like vultures come after death, so too is drought response.


Gary Watmough

We need to think about, well, why is this system not quite working in that way? And I think some of the problems are that it's a reactive system.

Gary Watmough is a senior lecturer at the University of Edinburgh. He is also an Associate at the Jameel Observatory working on enhancing local-level data through high-spatial resolution satellite imaging. 

Gary Watmough

 So it says when it says early warning, it isn't early warning, but it's the droughts have already started. When we when we're looking at these and it's giving us enough information to say, right, this is going to get worse.

So we need to do something now. But it's still reacting. You know, some of the systems that have been put in place since the previous drought in 2010, 2011, they are the safety nets being placed by the government. But a safety net is that's a reactive approach. It's not proactive. If you've got a safety net under a ladder, it's to stop you hitting the ground.

And that's what you kind of want to avoid that in the first place. You don't really want to be falling off the ladder and hitting and hitting a net before you hit the ground. You need some sort of proactive response to these issues. And these crises are only going to get worse. There's only going to be more of them over time.

So we need to think about that sort of anticipatory approach, that anticipatory action, which I think is that the effectiveness is that's where I question the effectiveness so far is that that longer term anticipatory action that we're lacking. But we really need to think more about, because I believe that every dollar spent on anticipatory action making communities more resilient is going in the long run, it's going to save money because you're not having to have humanitarian crisis management and, you know, food parcels dropped out of airplanes. As we as you see on the news and CNN and the BBC, those are the sort of the things that people remember out there that are involved in this type of work, that that costs a lot of money.

And it's not sustainable. It's not helpful. We need to build that resilience first.

So those who are worst affected by drought are also the least resilient, who end up suffering from the disconnect between early warning systems and responses.

That disconnect goes beyond people not receiving aid in time. It also makes people mistrustful of the advice they are being given.


Gary Watmough

I was in the fields in in Kenya, and one of the farmers I was talking to had multiple like half a dozen or so apps on his phone. This one never works. This one didn't work. This one told me last year not to plant maize, so I didn't plant maize, whereas his his other sort of friends in the area continue to plant maize anyway, even though it looked like the rain wasn't going to be good enough.

And the rains eventually came and they had a good harvest and he switched over to something else. And therefore his trust in these systems and this data had suddenly dropped. He was no longer using that particular app. And it's that that element that we need to think about how we communicate it better to show that this isn't guaranteed.

And I think that's the issue. Well, that's one of the key things about how do you how do you communicate? This isn't an exact science, because it's really difficult to predict rainfall. It's very difficult to predict it into the medium to long terms that we're also wanting. It's quite difficult to do that. So anticipatory action, it may not be that we have to improve the predictions.

It's more we improve how we communicate what he's done and what he means and how people want to use that data to do that. We need that co-production approach where what do farmers look for? What do they want? How much trust have they got to where can we build that trust further? And that's a big wonder that we're still we still get our heads around it at the Jameel observatory as well to actually figure out what we're doing.

Drought management has to become more proactive, and better tailored to the communities it should help. In a space built on response rather than anticipation, how can we better build resilience and preparation for the next drought? 

The field is already crowded. Many institutions are working to better detect, monitor and respond to droughts. The problem is they are working in silos, with little crossover and communication between them. That’s where Guyo Roba sees the Jameel Observatory playing an important role.


Guyo Roba:

And I think the reason why the Jameel observatory as an idea is more compelling is actually to bridge you know, the science with the policy. And I think is a very unique proposition that we have in the observatory, is that I think we will bring people who are so much embedded in the humanitarian space, those who are so much rooted in the action space, those who are so much rooted in the research space together and see how do we blend this thing.

The Observatory has finished their first meeting of the Community of practice, bringing together stakeholders to compile a list of challenge questions. And they’ve pinpointed three priority areas – data, and financing for early action, and coordination between early warning and action. Of the three, coordination is the biggest challenge as it involves building trust in data. 

How do we build trust within data? And also, of course, the you know, how did you bring the the long term? But the short term interventions, short term means that is an emergency and we need to solve it. Long term is the development resilience conversation that happens. So these five ideas are currently what we are clustered together and within this we already got co-champions institutions who want to be part of this idea.


The Jameel Observatory is only a year old, but it already has made headway. At the core of the Observatory’s mission is working with partners and bringing all possible stakeholders to the table.

Guyo Roba

I think the stakeholders, of course, primarily, government, I think from some of our work, they would really stand to benefit, but then also I think the donor community because they also put a lot of money on these issues and on the drought, you know, situation. And I think if we if we get opportunity to have a roundtable conversation with them, it would be perfect.

I think the third category of people for I think is also the, you know, the pastoralists, because they are people are missing from the table and through the association or through whatever structures they have, they have to find their footing. And we are looking at how do we bring also them into the community of practice. Currently they're not there so certainly they are also another actor. Private sector, I think. Yeah, they are a bit weak in this space we are already working with. You know, some of the people are providing, you know, insurance services, livestock insurance in the advisory team . But then certainly, I think we need to have a strategy on how we can also bring them on board

As well as fostering dialogue and mutual understanding, the Jameel Observatory is also working to fill gaps in the data, and make data easier for decision-makers to use. One of Gary Watmough’s monitoring projects is to find out what’s going on in the ground. 

Because, here’s an example of a data issue. In Kenya, censuses happen only every 10 years to track population trends. But with so many things going on during this time, it might be not clear what’s driving any changes.

So Gary uses remote satellite imagery to collect data over a region, sometimes as regularly as on a daily basis. 

One type of data is roofing types. A change from thatched roofs to metal roofs can show a household has gained more income. Other indicators of income and general well-being are field size, crop growth, and house size.

So that  research feeds into these drought monitoring detection systems whereby if you know there's a drought occurring or you've got projections of a drought happening, what we're being told as well by the National Drought Monitoring Authority in Kenya is one of the things that's lacking is well, we know where the drought is, but there's quite a few regions where do we target first? Which communities do we target? 

And it's that socioeconomic element, the resilience of those communities that's lacking in some of this information.


This is where satellite data can have the edge over other methods.


The data doesn't allow us to do that without doing very expensive household surveys, which we just we can't do them quickly enough, so we can't process. Even if we could get people out into the field to collect these things, they take a lot of time to process and clean and then release.

So it would cost so much money that we wouldn't be able to do anything else. And so that's where my research kind of comes in. And it's the Jameel Observatories. How do we start to try and plug those gaps and add extra information to these drought's detection system to say, you might want to think about doing something slightly different in this region .


With 17 million people in the Horn of Africa facing hunger and a fifth failed rainy season on the way, that narrative of ‘aid coming with the vultures’ needs to change, and urgently. Accurate early warning systems and institutions like the Jameel Observatory make it possible to anticipate drought, and prepare for it, rather than react to emergencies. Humanitarian aid will still be important, of course, but we can help build resilience in communities before aid becomes necessary.

The Jameel Observatory is bringing together many different aspects of drought relief, encouraging different institutions to work with one another. Science, policy, and humanitarian sectors all have something to contribute to drought responses and will be even more effective as they learn what each can offer and what each needs from the others. The observatory is also bringing on board the people who matter most, the pastoralists and their livestock and the communities affected by drought, who often have their own insights into drought warnings and how to cope. Working together, through the Jameel Observatory’s projects, in future could help to prevent drought from causing hunger, famine and death.  

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