Gov’ts Fail to Invest in Hungriest, Poorest Regions Creating Crisis After Crisis

By Stephen Leahy

CHANGWON, South Korea, Oct 21, 2011 (IPS)

For millennia, people have coped with drought in the Horn of Africa, comprised mainly of drylands. Yet today, more than 13 million people there are starving because of political instability, poor government policies and failure to invest in the world’s poorest people, say experts here in Changwon.

2.5 billion dollars in humanitarian aid is needed to cope with a devastating hunger crisis in parts of Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia.

Two billion people, half of whom are extremely impoverished, live in drylands around the world, according to Anne Juepner of the Drylands Development Centre at the UN Development Programme (UNDP) in Nairobi.

“Drylands are not wastelands, as is often thought. More than half of the world’s cattle, sheep, goats and most of its grains are grown in drylands,” Juepner told IPS in an interview outside of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification 10th Conference of the Parties (COP 10) in Changwon.

Juepner is here to launch UNDP’s “The Forgotten Billion”, a report to call attention to the fact that despite its productivity, drylands that comprise one third of the world’s land mass are also home to world’s poorest and most at-risk people.

Drylands include the Great Plains of North America, the Pampas in Argentina and the wheat regions of the Ukraine and Kazakhstan. Major cities like Los Angeles, Mexico City, Delhi, Cairo and Beijing are situated in drylands.

Although much of North America is drylands and suffers from land degradation, it is the rural drylands in developing countries where the poorest people are found. They are often neglected or ignored by their own countries and by development organisations, said Juepner.

Many have survived for thousands of years in very dry conditions, but they live on the edge of survival. If governments impose borders or create protected or settlement areas to restrict the movement of pastoralists and their animals, a drought can tip them into crisis.

Governments often invest very little in infrastructure like roads and schools in these poor regions. Similarly, development agencies and other donors don’t think these are the best places to make investments, according to Juepner.

Successive droughts have plagued much of Kenya, leaving some with literally nothing and making recovery nearly impossible without assistance. “Small targeted investments in affected communities can help them recover,” she said.

A small UNDP project helps the Turkana people in northwest Kenya turn aloe vera plants into hand soap that is in high demand at local markets. According to Juepner, these types of low-cost investments, not annual humanitarian responses, are effective in preventing crises.

Some of that massive sum of 2.5 billion dollars for disaster response for the Horn of Africa needs to be allocated to those kinds of investment to increase the resilience and ability of local communities to adapt, Juepner said.

Pastoralism is often thought of as a lifestyle that is either backwards or highly risky, and nomads, otherwise known as pastoralists, are often blamed for degrading land. But in fact, research now shows that drylands are adapted to livestock and animal movement and suffer when they are removed.

“Degraded lands recover much faster with right number of livestock than when animals are fenced out,” Juepner said.

Mobile pastoralism is part of the solution to the crisis, said Pablo Manzano, global coordinator of the World Initiative for Sustainable Pastoralism. Being mobile is the best way to adapt to shifting rainfall patterns, as pastoralists have been for thousands of years, emulating the migrations of wild animals.

Mobility is also critical for adapting to a changing climate, he said.

Irrigated crop farming is expensive and not a panacea for food security problems in drylands, as irrigation schemes exhaust water resources and lead to conflicts with pastorialists, Manzano told IPS in Changwon.

Land tenure is key to ensuring pastoralists can control and manage lands properly. Political boundaries also impose arbitrary barriers. “In the Horn of Africa, not a single border runs along cultural or ecological lines,” he said.

Long-term strategies, which have been key during other food crises, should be based on allowing people to move with their livestock across manmade boundaries.

Famines are more related to political turmoil, and in fact, the current crisis in the Horn of Africa was predicted a year ago, Manzano said. He added that political instability and war in Somalia are the main reasons why four million Somalis are in desperate straits.

“This crisis (in Horn of Africa) has been going on for 20 years, so we must change the way we work,” said David Morley, president and CEO of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Canada.

Preventing drought-related famine requires investing in the development of small business to provide extra income for pastorialists, Morley said in a release. They also need flexible schooling, decentralized health services and local management of water points.

“The key is to listen to and learn from the community.”

First published as  AFRICA: Gov’ts Fail to Invest in Hungriest, Poorest Regions – IPS

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