Workers offload nutrition supplements brought in by Medecins Sans Frontieres  in Leer, South Sudan, on July 15. (Andreea Campeanu/Reuters)

The warning signs were everywhere.

At the beginning of this year, NGOs began to caution that South Sudan faced a famine. Fears became more substantial in May, when local farmers were forced to flee their homes due to fighting between Dinka and Nuer ethnic groups at a time when they would usually have tilled their fields. At the end of July, the United Nations Security Council expressed "grave concern" about the situation and described it as "currently ... the worst [food insecurity situation] in the world." Some 50,000 children could die, the U.N. warned, and more than one third of South Sudan's population is dangerously threatened.

If governments and NGOs have known about the looming catastrophe in South Sudan for months and if early reactions could have saved thousands of lives, why were they waiting? The problem is that South Sudan is following a standard pattern for these kinds of problems: The help only really arrives once it's too late.

Aid always lags behind

There are a variety of warning systems that monitor indications for potential famines. Factors observed include weather forecasts, rainfall, crop production, forage cover, food prices and socioeconomic indicators such as human migration. But what makes the final difference between a food crisis and a full-blown famine are political conflicts like the one South Sudan has experienced this year. The country declared independence from the rest of Sudan on July 9, 2011. Last December, troops within the presidential guard started fighting and the conflict spread quickly.

This conflict coincided with warning signs of famine, yet so far help offered to South Sudan has been limited. Research conducted by London's Chatham House shows that early warning signs do not necessarily lead to early reactions. This graph shows the build-up of the catastrophic 2011 famine in Somalia, a country in deep political turmoil, with the terrorist organization al-Shabaab controlling wide areas of territory. The light-blue areas on this graph indicate the requested aid, while the dark-blue ones show the actual funding.


The author of the report, Rob Bailey, told The Post that "decision-makers perceive significant downside risks from funding early action," such as the possibility of money being diverted to hostile groups. Hence, foreign governments often wait until the last moment to provide funding – making it likely to come too late. In the early phases of a crisis, the pressure on decision-makers is low because public awareness is similarly low. Conversely, risks are high: Who wants to spend taxpayer's money on a foreign, predicted crisis of uncertain scale?

Despite that, money is not the only obstacle. On Wednesday, the U.S. government provided $180 million to South Sudan. It is the leading donor of humanitarian assistance to the country, having spent a total of more than $636 million in Southern Sudanese humanitarian assistance in fiscal 2014, according to Matthew Herrick, a spokesman for the U.S. Agency for International Development. Herrick believes that other countries have failed in the current crisis. "We urge other donors to similarly seize this moment to respond robustly while there still may be a chance to prevent the worst consequences of this conflict," he says. According to Herrick, the government of South Sudan and the opposition have utterly failed and put millions of people on the brink of famine. Only their commitment to true peace, reconciliation, and accountability will end this crisis and give donors access to the affected conflict areas, says Herrick.

Not all famines are treated equally 

There are differences, however, in the way famines are treated by foreign governments. As soon as a foreign crisis becomes a domestic threat, governments are quick to react. Take a look at what happened to U.S. development assistance to Ethiopia after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, compared to various humanitarian disasters in the country. Ethiopia was a key regional ally of the U.S. in the subsequent war on terror:


South Sudan has difficulties attracting this kind of attention. "The country faces competition from the Syria and Gaza crises, both of which have greater international media coverage and are full blown," Bailey says.

The quest to gain attention 

Earlier this month, German NGO Welthungerhilfe began a social media project to raise awareness for South Sudan's problems, using the hashtag #ByTheEndOfSeptember. The name refers to the predictions that more than 4 million South Sudanese are predicted to starve by the end of that  month.

By urging supporters to tweet and post related articles on Facebook using the hashtag, the NGO wants to increase the amount of private donations as well as pressure states. A different campaign began in spring. "Unfortunately, our first appeal to our donors for aid brought in fewer funds than expected," says Simone Pott, a spokeswoman for the NGO. "Often, donations only accelerate when images of starvation proliferate. It is nearly impossible to raise the same amount of awareness for looming catastrophes," she says.

That's a shame for all. Responding to disasters retroactively not only endangers many more lives, it can also cost more money. "An early response would require comparatively fewer resources and would allow agencies involved to save more lives and prevent a catastrophe," Joyce Luma, the South Sudan Country Director of the U.N. World Food Program, explains.