During the Gulf War in 1991, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was looking for a legal adviser on international humanitarian law. At the time, I was working as a lawyer in the Swiss banking sector. The job offer from the ICRC made me change my perspective from corporate and banking law in Switzerland, to international humanitarian and human rights law for the benefit of people in conflict areas. I very soon learnt that the effective alleviation of humanitarian crises requires enormous strength, long-term engagement and joint efforts from all sides: citizens, governments and the international community.
Early in my career, the Horn of Africa became a priority region during the many years of working with the ICRC, the UN and Swiss Humanitarian Aid. I visited Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia at regular intervals. I saw heartbreaking hardships but was also fascinated by the hospitality and resilience of the people, despite the often extremely difficult living conditions.
These days, I return to the region to witness and assess the current food crisis. As a humanitarian, I often deal with catastrophic and crisis-prone situations. However, this time, I was particularly moved by the sheer scale of the current problem. In my conversations with Somali refugees in Kenya and internally displaced people in Somalia, it became clear that the consequences of the ongoing drought are particularly devastating for vulnerable people.
So how is the ongoing drought situation affecting the people in Kenya and Somalia?
Families are taking desperate measures to survive. I have observed how drought increases the risk of gender-based violence, sexual exploitation and abuse; it limits children’s access to education; leads to developmental disorders and diseases caused by malnutrition and hunger; and displaced people deprived of the support of their families or their social networks are extremely vulnerable and in need of protection.
I am aware the current crisis is further exacerbated by an already difficult economic situation, as affected communities are struggling to cope with the cumulative consequences of other shocks, including Covid-19 and the effects of the war in Ukraine on commodity prices. Additionally, political priorities such as Kenya's General Election distract domestic political attention from the severe food crisis taking place in parts of Kenya and the Horn of Africa.
The climatic event affecting the region is of historic proportions not seen in at least 40 years. Millions of people are facing the threat of starvation. In Kenya alone, nearly 4.1 million persons are food insecure and over three million Kenyans cannot access enough water for drinking and cooking due to the drought. These numbers are to increase by the end of the year.
Switzerland's relations with the region have intensified continuously over the past 30 years. The Swiss Cooperation has been involved in humanitarian aid, development and peacebuilding in the Horn of Africa for many decades. Following the famine of 2011, we significantly expanded our support and launched a regional cooperation programme for the Horn of Africa to contribute to a more stable and resilient region in the long-term. For this plan, the Swiss government is providing more than $230 million over the next four years.
I can assure you Switzerland remains committed to its engagement in Kenya and the region, despite recent geopolitical developments. To confirm this commitment, last April I participated in a high-level roundtable in Geneva in which I stressed our support for global fundraising efforts, led by regional governments, including Kenya and Somalia. Moreover, Switzerland allocated for this year an additional $11 million to respond to urgent needs linked to the food crisis in the region.
However, Switzerland's commitment and the support of the international community will not be sufficient to adequately meet the needs of the people caused by the devastating drought. Long-term engagements focusing on resilience and adaptation of livelihoods to climate change requires more attention, both at the international and national levels, as does learning from previous crises in the region. The response to the current crisis must therefore be a joint one by all who have the knowledge, experience and resources.
Amb Manuel Bessler is the Head of the Swiss Humanitarian Aid