Managing Famine Risk: Linking Early Warning to Early Action

Rob Bailey


This document is the final report of a Chatham House research project on the barriers that hinder appropriate response to early warning of slow-onset food crises. It finds that famine risk is well understood but badly managed. Famine early warning does not lead to early action, often because of governments’ perceptions of political risk: changing the status quo requires that governments anticipate political reward from acting to reduce famine risk and expect to be penalised for failing to do so. The report includes recommendations for operational, institutional and funding reform. It also suggests testing new approaches and enabling vulnerable communities to take early action themselves.

Key Findings

  • Famine risk is well understood and badly managed: The threat of food crisis in The Horn and Sahel is increasing due to rapid population growth, low levels of political inclusion, low agricultural yields and rapid environmental change. This threat is never unexpected as it occurs regularly and its slow-onset pathology is well understood. A risk of such high likelihood and severity, which is predictable and preventable, should be a constant focus for risk reduction measures. However, responses to food crises are reactive, slow and fragmented.
  • Famine early warning does not lead to early action: The long lead time offered by famine early warning systems is supposed to provide the opportunity for decisive early action, yet there is always delay. The delay dynamics are further intensified by the numerous and fragmented users of early warnings with their differing interests and priorities. Those with the greatest capacity to avert crisis are, at best, only weakly accountable to those at risk.
  • In the absence of strong accountability to vulnerable populations, governments do not give priority to humanitarian needs: Donors and national governments often consider delay as a politically rational strategy. The governments of at-risk countries may disregard early warning signs of politically marginalized communities in their spending and policy making. Aid policies and institutions on the other hand are shaped by the risk preferences of donor governments.
  • Changing the status quo requires that governments anticipate political reward from acting to reduce famine risk and expect to be penalized for failing to do so: Advocacy and campaigns by NGOs campaigns can help tip the political calculus in favour of early action by rewarding those governments that provide early funding and criticizing those that delay. In addition, closer alignment of humanitarian and political risks would make governments more likely to respond to famine early warning and more likely to reform institutions and policies to enable early action.


  • Donors and national governments should invest in improving the official early warning capacity and effectiveness.
  • Donors, agencies and national government should invest in community-based early warning systems and capacity-building, particularly in vulnerable contexts or where communities are politically marginalized, so as to help vulnerable communities take early action themselves.
  • Operational reform: Agencies can optimize preparedness by maintaining a certain level of operational redundancy or spare capacity, including pre-positioning emergency supplies in response to early warnings. In addition, donors can cause operational change by insisting on agency response plans demonstrating interventions that can be delivered in time.
  • Institutional reform: Donors and agencies should adopt risk management strategies that identify risks, explain the rationale for assuming risk and show how early warning and early action are central to risk management.
  • Resilience labs should be developed in partnership between national governments, donors, agencies and early warnings providers to test new approaches and demonstrate success.


Bailey. R. (2013) Managing Famine Risk: Linking Early Warning to Early Action. London: Chatham House