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Evaluation of Australia's response to the Horn of Africa humanitarian crisis, 2011

Executive summary

This evaluation examines the effectiveness of Australian humanitarian assistance provided in 2011 in response to a crisis in the Horn of Africa (HoA), a region well known for its chronic vulnerability. This evaluation identifies how the Australian aid program can improve the effectiveness of responses to future slow-onset crises.


In 2011, a devastating famine in the riverine areas of south-central Somalia killed an estimated 257 500 people, about half of whom were under five years old. Drought was one of the main causes of the crisis, along with rising food prices. Neighbouring Kenya and Ethiopia, which were also affected by drought, had to cope with food shortages as well as refugee flows from Somalia. The other main causes of the crisis were armed conflict and the actions of the terrorist group Al-Shabaab, which controlled much of the most seriously affected areas. It was estimated that, in 2011, about 13.3 million people across the HoA needed multiple forms of assistance.

The Australian response

Australia contributed a total of $112 million to the international humanitarian effort in 2011. This made it Australia's largest-ever international disaster relief operation in financial terms. Australia was one of the top five country donors to the crisis in absolute terms and as a proportion of gross domestic product. The scale of Australia's response was in keeping with the magnitude of the crisis.

Main findings

Australia, like other countries, did not commit major funding for the crisis until after famine was declared in Somalia in July 2011. Many deaths could have been avoided with earlier action. Australia, along with other donors, needs to reflect on how to initiate responses before crises escalate.

Once famine was declared, Australia led early calls for the international community to respond and was one of the first donors to make major financial commitments. Australia's diplomacy and early-mover example helped make other donors willing to accept the risks of providing assistance in areas controlled by Al-Shabaab. This leadership is to Australia's credit.


The main priority for the Australian aid program was to get food assistance to affected people in Somalia and provide assistance for refugees. This made strategic sense, because the epicentre of the famine was in southern Somalia, where access to food was the critical issue, and the crisis caused a large-scale movement of people within and away from Somalia.

The Australian aid program in Nairobi invested significant effort in getting donors and aid agencies to work together. In particular, the Nairobi team supported the overall United Nations (UN) official in charge, the humanitarian coordinator, and the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). Australia also helped to push for better coordination of food aid, advocating strongly for the food security 'cluster' to become operational and effective.


Australian assistance was delivered exclusively through partners. UN agencies received the bulk of the funding—some $87.5 million, with a heavy prioritisation of the World Food Programme (WFP), which received $57 million. The remaining $24.5 million went to the Australian Red Cross Society and 19 Australian-based non-government organisations (NGOs).

Australian NGOs were funded through two mechanisms that had not been previously used: the Humanitarian Partnership Agreement (HPA) and the Dollar for Dollar Initiative. Both schemes had strengths and weaknesses. A notable achievement of the HPA was the rapid, efficient disbursal of funds to the preselected group of NGOs. Strengths of the Dollar for Dollar Initiative were engaging the public and increasing the level of funding for the crisis. However, the Australian NGOs funded through both schemes were not always those organisations best placed to provide the most needed assistance. Another drawback of the Dollar for Dollar Initiative was that it took considerable time to establish so that funds were not available until after the peak of the crisis. The large number of partner organisations also made it administratively burdensome.


The speed with which funding was disbursed following commitments being made and strong alignment with the principles of good humanitarian donorship are notable strengths of Australian assistance. Australia's fast, effective and well-regarded response is a testament to the hard work of and incredible dedication of aid program staff both in Nairobi and Canberra,

With WFP as its main partner, Australian aid did not reach the neediest areas as quickly as intended because the agency was blocked from working in these areas by Al-Shabaab, and WFP took time to scale up its operations. Some agencies funded by Australia did manage to deliver humanitarian assistance in the worst-affected areas at the peak of the crisis. The International Committee of the Red Cross fed more than a million people. The UN Children's Fund, UN Food and Agriculture Organization and some NGOs provided assistance using cash transfers. These transfers were a major success in attracting traders, bringing down food prices and giving people more choice overall.

Largely due to Australian support, WFP became operational in Mogadishu, where a large number of internally displaced persons had gathered. WFP used Australia-funded food to help famine victims directly. Australian funds assisted refugees in Kenya through both the WFP and the UN High Commission for Refugees.

Most funding was focused on food assistance and support for displaced people as intended, but all sectors were supported. The severity of the crisis meant that affected people had needed multiple forms of assistance—including water, shelter, protection, livelihood support and cash. All sectors were supported by Australian assistance as a result of funding to NGOs.

After the international response scaled up the combined efforts of the major donors (including Australia) and agencies led to dramatic reductions in mortality rates in Somalia. The exact number of lives saved by Australian assistance is hard to estimate, but it is clear that many people, and possibly millions of people, received much needed assistance.


This evaluation has found many positive aspects to the Australian response, as well as some significant lessons.

The first major lesson is that the response needed more support internally. Australia is well rehearsed in responding to sudden-onset natural disasters nearer home with rapid deployment of expert teams and administrators. In the HoA, the workload involved in using partners was underestimated. Providing assistance in complex conflict-affected areas needs highly technical responses and liaising with multiple funding agencies, which requires active management and close monitoring. In the future, a set of administrative procedures for managing these spikes in 'slow onset-crises' responses need to be established as they have been for rapid-onset disasters. This would mean rapidly developing a strategy and staffing plan, as well as making sure responsibilities and priorities are clear.

Recommendation 1

DFAT should develop procedures for responding to slow-onset humanitarian crises.

The second clear lesson is that the reporting of partners needs to be improved. Implementing partners, particularly UN agencies, did not consistently provide adequate reporting on what they did and achieved with Australian funds. Reporting requirements for NGOs were more stringent than those for UN agencies, but both need to provide better information.

Recommendation 2

DFAT should develop clear measures of success for humanitarian action and ensure that funding agreements with partners include specific reporting against these measures.

The third lesson is that humanitarian expertise needs to be enhanced in DFAT to exploit international humanitarian knowledge and networks. This should improve how valuable resources are used and provide greater stewardship of humanitarian responses.

Recommendation 3

DFAT should continue to build humanitarian cadre and expertise.

The fourth lesson is the need to be flexible and innovative in ways that improve effectiveness. For example, options for cash-transfer programming, which was effective in the crisis, should be routinely considered by DFAT. The use of UN-pooled funds could be further exploited, especially if the speed with which UN agencies disburse funds can be improved.

Recommendation 4

DFAT should continue to improve the quality, timeliness and focus of its operations, changing emphasis as evidence proves the efficacy of new or amended approaches.

The fifth lesson is that mechanisms to fund NGOs could be improved. Funding mechanisms need to be able to target partner organisations best suited to respond, and also be administratively efficient. Australia should be prepared to fund well-placed NGOs that do not have an Australian base. Additionally, any scheme to engage public support should be planned in advance so funding can be provided in a timely fashion.

Recommendation 5

DFAT should develop strategies to better mobilise resources in response to slow-onset humanitarian crises.

The sixth lesson is that Australia should improve liaison with other donors and organisations when working in regions outside the traditional geographic focuses of the aid program. This means having experts on the ground, in embassies or working with partners. Having experts in liaison roles in key 'at-risk' areas or regions is a good investment for humanitarian responses.

Recommendation 6

DFAT should increase humanitarian liaison capacity in regions outside the traditional geographic focuses of the aid program.

Last Updated: 9 December 2014
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