This month, a Save the Children and Oxfam report was published with a stark and timely message for us all about the need to act quickly when a humanitarian disaster looms.
Highlighting the difficulties faced by humanitarian aid agencies like UNICEF when responding to the Horn of Africa food crisis, the report, A Dangerous Delay, stresses how important it is for governments and donors to respond swiftly when the early warning signs for emergencies appear.
Speaking for UNICEF UK, Executive Director David Bull, welcomed the report, saying, "early warning systems on humanitarian developments need to be followed by early action."
When reflecting on the experience of the Horn of Africa food crisis, the importance of early action quickly becomes clear.
In East Africa, millions of people have been made vulnerable to food scarcity and soaring food prices as a result of prolonged drought and conflict. Hundreds of thousands of children have been affected by severe acute malnutrition with many still in desperate need of life-saving support.
Women and children are often the worst affected when disasters occur.
There were early warning signs of a disaster unfolding in the region. UNICEF had already been working in Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia for decades when those warning signs appeared, and were mobilising resources to help children affected by the food crisis as early as November 2010.
However, in the months before the Horn of Africa crisis received much needed attention from the international community, UNICEF and other humanitarian agencies faced a real challenge to find the resources to support vulnerable children and their communities through the worst consequences of the food emergency.
UNICEF and others had already been working hard to save lives long before most of us became fully aware of what was going on in the region.
For me, my motivation to fundraise for the relief efforts came only when emotive news reports with shocking pictures started to appear on my TV screen. The situation hadn’t really registered on my radar until then, by which time it had already become a full-blown emergency.
And I know that there were many others for whom this was the case. Everyone I knew gave generously once we realised what was happening, but for many children and their families, help had arrived too late. By the time the international community were aware of the situation, precious time - and lives - had already been lost.
And that’s why early action and awareness-raising is so important. Without public attention and support at the early stages of an emergency, it is difficult to respond promptly with resources for those who need them most.
Mobilising people and raising funds takes time. But the quicker agencies like UNICEF receive funding to support vulnerable people when emergencies occur, the more likely it is that large scale disasters like the Horn of Africa crisis can be reduced, or indeed averted.
If we want to support UNICEF to protect children at risk in emergency situations, then we need to learn from experience in East Africa, and act on early warning signs quickly, as soon as they appear.
Hannah Doherty is Public Affairs Policy Intern.
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