Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Disaster done better

Amidst the chaos and devastation, the drama and recriminations of Haiti, Pakistan and the many other international disasters of the past few months, it is easy to lose sight of what is happening in Africa. Of course, no-one really covers these stories, partly because there aren't a lot of readers in the first world who care much about Niger and Chad, but partly also because bad news makes for good headlines and what has been happening in Africa isn't that bad. Not, don't get me wrong, that people dying of hunger or massive droughts and floods are not bad. What is different here is the response.

In the past couple of decades, an awful lot of time, money and expertise has been invested in changing the way that disasters unfold on the African continent. Those who argue that aid has been uniformly bad for Africa would do well to pay a little more attention to things like the USAID Famine Early Warning System (FEWS) and the many country- and regional-level initiatives to develop clear baselines and gather sufficient information to make prediction and early response possible. In Niger, although funding was slower than would have been ideal, the terrible tragedy of famine that affected the country in 2005 (the last time they had similar erratic rains and food shortages) was largely averted. In Mozambique where there have just been food riots, the lack of action on the part of the government - in the face of freely available information about production, droughts and possible threats - is generally accepted as the problem. In Ethiopia, the Gambella region has identified and acknowledged the coming threats and triggered their disaster preparedness plans.

To those who live in safe cities and buy food at overstocked supermarkets, this may not seem like a lot. In countries where drought, famine and flood are always just a rain-cloud away, the move from reaction to anticipation is dramatic and often lifesaving. It is a pity this isn't likely to make the news but if the reason there is less reporting on Africans dying in disasters is because there are less Africans dying in disasters, that's probably something that should be seen as a step on the road to the right direction of something approaching a win.

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