Four ways the UK government’s efforts on famine prevention and humanitarian action could make a difference

The British Government has made famine prevention, extreme hunger and respect of international humanitarian law its priorities for humanitarian action. A new role, the UK Special Envoy on Famine Prevention and Humanitarian Affairs, was created and work has gone forward to promote this agenda through the UN Security Council and G7, which has helped with momentum by the UN Secretary General to establish a High Level Famine Taskforce and the G7 has agreed a ‘famine prevention and humanitarian crises compact.’

Yet in the context of devastating cuts to the UK aid budget, the Government’s credibility on these issues is hugely undermined. At CAFOD we hear on an almost daily basis from local partners doing brave work in unimaginably difficult circumstances and who see the devastating impacts of these cuts on life-saving aid programmes where they work.

Notwithstanding aid cuts imposed by their political masters, FCDO officials have clearly tried to put together credible policy agenda for the G7 on famine prevention. In particular, CAFOD welcomes the focus on anticipatory action.

We agree that humanitarian action needs to shift from a largely reactive ‘response’ mode towards – where and when possible – an anticipatory approach, which enables the coping strategies, resilience and early warning, early action efforts of people affected by crises. We also agree that the UK and wider international response to countries in conflict extends beyond alleviating humanitarian consequences, and grapples with accountability for violence against civilians and addressing the root causes of crises.

Across all of these priorities, it is local community-led organisations and networks that have some of the most important contributions to make, which are not adequately recognised or supported by the UK or other G7 governments until now.

From CAFOD’s perspective, there are four ways forward, which also represent tests by which we can assess the credibility of the UK’s efforts on famine prevention:

1. Reversing the UK aid cuts in countries affected by famine and extreme hunger

The chaos and devastating humanitarian consequences of the Government’s aid cuts bring shame on the UK, and undermine its efforts on famine prevention. Take Yemen as an example – in February 2021 the World Food Programme said that 16.2 million people face hunger which is “unprecedented” and forecasts that famine-like conditions will triple in the first half of 2021, affecting 47,000 people.

The Government recognised this making Yemen a priority for its new UK Special Envoy on Famine Prevention, Nick Dyer, and for the G7 agenda. Yet the Government has cut aid to Yemen by 60%. Or Syria, another context experiencing extreme hunger as a consequence of a decade of conflict, sanctions and the impacts of Covid19, yet the Government has cut UK aid to Syria by 32%.

Whilst FCDO funding appears to have been protected to poor-performing economic development actors like the CDC (Commonwealth Development Corporation), support to life-saving programmes by UN agencies and NGOs in crises around the world has been slashed. For the Government to have credibility on famine prevention, it needs to reverse the cuts and prioritise UK support for life-saving aid and protection.

2. Scaling up support to local community led initiatives on early warning, early action

If the UK and other donors want to shift humanitarian action from ‘providing’ aid to ‘enabling’ early warning and early action by communities affected by crisis, then they need to articulate a much more clear and ambitious approach to supporting local actors.

It is local NGOs that are best placed to understand the hazards, risks and vulnerabilities shaped by climate change and other drivers of crises, and to support anticipatory action at the community level. The FCDO recently framed an announcement of its annual contribution to the Start Network (£12 million) as linked to its efforts on anticipatory action towards the COP26 Summit on Climate Change. That pledge is welcome but this does not constitute an increase on previous contributions to Start network.

In fact simultaneously the FCDO has also cut its funding to humanitarian learning and innovation under ELHRA, including on community-level resilience, preparedness and anticipation. Between the G7 and COP26 Summits, we need to see the UK overcome the gap between rhetoric about anticipatory action, climate resilience and adaptation reaching the so-called “last mile” and the reality of both climate and humanitarian finance failing to adequately support those local organisations working at the frontlines of the climate crisis and extreme hunger.

The UK already has tried and tested models for providing this kind of support:

  • In Myanmar the FCDO has channelled funding to country-level funding mechanisms and platforms that enable direct engagement with national NGOs, and which have invested in their capacities to manage risks and respond to food security crises in a timely way (HARP-F and LIFT Fund).
  • Last year a partner of CAFOD, Caritas Bangladesh, became the first national NGO to implement a Start-funded Analysis for Anticipatory Action initiative in hilly areas of Bangladesh.

The UK and other donors should adopt an ambitious plan to scale-up support to these kinds of country-level platforms, and prioritise those like the Start Hubs, which are working towards enabling local NGO leadership.

3. Strengthening practical support to local civil society on understanding and addressing violence against civilians and the root causes of crises

For the UK and other G7 nations to effectively understand and address violations of international humanitarian law or the root causes of crises, they need to engage meaningfully with civil society rooted in the communities affected by conflict.

If we look to the ongoing crisis in Tigray, Ethiopia, for example, there has been lots of political and media attention to the widespread protection violations, including horrific and shocking levels of conflict-related sexual violence, torture and forced displacement. Yet the international community failed to adequately or in a timely fashion support gender-based violence response efforts on the ground, and UK funding through the UN system largely failed to reach local NGOs delivering GBV case management, protection and psycho-social programmes.

When it comes to policy dialogue with civil society partners, there have been some good practices by FCDO staff. For example in South Sudan, we have seen sincere efforts by the UK Special Envoy and others to engage with both faith leaders and other local civil society network so their insights can inform the UK’s approach. However, all this good work is currently being undermined by the aid cuts. Support for 2021-2022 to the South Sudan Council of Churches (SSCC) “Action Plan for Peace”, which supports Inter Church Committees and faith-based institutions respected by warring parties to mitigate conflict, has been slashed

There is a limit to what diplomatic support can achieve when support to work on the ground is cut.

4. Practising what we preach on justice and accountability for International Humanitarian Law (IHL)

Diplomatic efforts to promote the protection of civilians in times of war by the UK are very welcome. For example, our local partners have launched the Syrian Road to Justice campaign to press for accountability and support for survivors of conflict-related sexual violence in Syria.

But the Government undermines both its own credibility on IHL and wider global efforts on accountability through its own actions. The two most egregious current examples of this are UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia, which makes the Government complicit in violence against civilians in Yemen, and the UK Overseas Operations Act, which will make prosecuting war crimes by the UK military increasingly difficult.

Around the world, CAFOD channels funding and other kinds of support to local partners implementing community-based initiatives on protection in conflict, human rights defenders and advocacy on justice and accountability. International cooperation can play an important role in countries affected by conflict and instability. Yet that cooperation is undermined when political actors opposed to human rights, justice and accountability can point to the hypocrisy of Western governments on same issues.

Failing to practice what we preach undermines the credibility of UK and G7 efforts.

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