Enhancing effectiveness of humanitarian diplomacy

Saturday February 18 2017

Dadaab refugee complex. PHOTO | PHIL MOORE | AFP

Dadaab refugee complex. PHOTO | PHIL MOORE | AFP 

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Indisputably, as Kenya edges closer to its middle power ambition, its new frontier of influence does not lie in a Spartan projection of its military prowess – although military might is sometimes crucial. It rests on carefully weaving the technologies of “Athenian soft power” associated with humanitarian diplomacy.

To be sure, humanitarian response capacity is an integral component of the development agenda of many developing countries. It also enables countries to project their soft power regionally and globally. 

A devastating drought in 2016-2017 hiatus and the global debate on disaster management in the aftermath of the World Conference on Disaster Risk Reduction in Sendai, Japan, in March 2016 have focused the spotlight on Kenya’s ability to effectively respond to humanitarian emergencies in the disaster-prone Horn of Africa region. 

This sparked two intertwined conversations this week, which highlighted the need to harness Kenya’s disaster response capabilities.

One conversation focused on Kenya’s internal disaster response capacity. On February 16, 2017, the Government convened a high-level inter-ministerial consultation on the on-going drought. The meeting, which also drew in Kenya’s external partners, UN agencies, non-State actors and the private sector, reviewed the effectiveness of current measures taken to mitigate the effects of the 2016-2017 drought and how best to overcome this and similar disasters on a short-term and long-term basis.


The drought has tested Kenya’s disaster response capabilities to the limits. The number of Kenyan citizens in need of relief assistance has risen from 1.3 million in August 2016 to 2.7 million, and is expected to spike to higher and dangerous levels if the March-April rains fail. 

However, four basic principles account for the relative success achieved so far in strengthening Kenya’s disaster response.

One, responses are data-driven. Since last year, the relevant government departments have conducted and regularly reviewed and updated the mapping of the degree of vulnerability across the country and utilised information from UN agencies and other sources to check and update its own data. 

Two, response has been quick. In September last year, the government quickly reactivated its inter-ministerial coordination capacity. President Uhuru Kenyatta has declared the current drought affecting 23 arid and semi-arid counties and pockets of other areas a national disaster or emergency, enabling the government and international partners to harness efforts and mobilise resources to counter the disaster. 

Three, the government is tapping into a recognisable capacity that has evolved in response to recent ruinous droughts in 2001/2002 and 2011/2012. Kenya is bringing the assets of its National Disaster Operation Centre, National Drought Management Authority and recently the National Disaster Management Agency among others to bear on the current drought. 


Two developments have bolstered this capacity. From below, the adoption of county governments after 2013 has provided a new framework of disaster response especially in arid areas. From above, the government has made remarkable efforts to create synergy between its own capacity, that of the non-State sector as well as development partners and humanitarian agencies.

This constitutes Kenya’s nascent disaster response architecture whose lynchpin is currently the inter-ministerial Response Coordination Board currently spearheading and harmonising responses to the drought menace. 

Currently convened by the Principal Secretary in the Ministry of Agriculture, this inclusive coordination platform brings together the relevant ministries and agencies, civil society, the private sector and Kenya’s external partners. The Kenyan Red Cross Society and the Kenya Public Sector Alliance have become the government’s partners in mobilising resources and response to disasters. Community-based organisations are also contributing to bolstering the risk reduction capacity and the resilience of at-risk communities. 

The second conversation is Kenya’s capacity to intervene and address regional and international emergencies as part of its humanitarian diplomacy. The dialogue on Kenya’s humanitarian diplomacy, a three-way partnership involving the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the UN Organisation on the Coordination of Humanitarian Action and Africa Policy Institute, was launched in November 2016 at a forum attended by senior officials, key ministry and UN officials led by the UNDP Administrator, Helen Clark. 


At the second forum of the dialogue held this week, participants audited the assets of Kenya humanitarian diplomacy and explored ways of enhancing its effectiveness and synergies with existing international capacity. 

This debate on enhancing Kenya’s humanitarian diplomacy as a projection of its benign soft power capabilities has echoes in the narrative of “Africa Rising” itself rooted in the idea of “African Renaissance”.

In this regard, Kenya’s humanitarian diplomacy is anchored on its post-2013 Africa-centred foreign policy, predicated on the ideals of pan-Africanism as encompassed in Africa’s Agenda 2063. 

To be sure, Kenya’s evolving humanitarian diplomacy in the 21st century is not a new phenomenon. For decades, the country has hosted refugees and other victims of natural and man-made disasters from neighbouring countries. Today, the country is hosting nearly half a million refugees, including 325,000 Somali refugees.

According to Operation Linda Nchi: Kenya’s Military Experience in Somalia, an official account by the Kenya Defence Forces, since the country’s military entered Somalia in 2010 to rout al-Shabaab militants, it has deployed its huge military asserts to strengthen the resilience of peoples at risk of violent extremism by sinking boreholes, sharing relief food, water and securing livelihoods, basic education and health services to win the hearts and minds of at-risk populations. 

One outcome of the dialogue on Kenya’s humanitarian diplomacy is a standing fund as a homegrown multilateral tool to respond to disasters and to help build the resilience of affected peoples in the region. 

Prof Peter Kagwanja is chief executive, Africa Policy Institute and convener, Kenya Policy Dialogue on Humanitarian Diplomacy.