Now president of New Zealand Red Cross, Dr McMahon had a long career as a delegate with the Movement.

Shortly after starting with the organisation in 1983, she was deployed to the ICRC war surgical hospital on the Thai-Kampuchea Border. Her second mission was to the desert region of northern Ethiopia where a catastrophic famine was gripping the country.

Dr McMahon spent most of the next decade and a half on the African continent, battling disease and malnutrition that resulted from natural disasters and conflict.

Now there are more than 20 million people in many of the countries she used to work in facing famine, as the Sahel and Horn of Africa experience one of the worst droughts in decades.

The case of Somalia

Somalia is one of the worst affected countries by the current drought, with more than six million people in dire need of assistance.

As a typically agrarian culture in many parts, Dr McMahon says populations have learned to cope with the cyclical and unpredictable nature of their climate.

But this isn’t always enough.

Dr McMahon was deployed to Somalia in 1995 and 1996 where she witnessed populations struggling with hunger and conflict.

“Each area within Somalia is its own faction and within that, there are structures that work,” she says.

For example, the ethnic Bantu population in Somalia developed strategies to cope with the harsh climate of the country and would work on the assumption that they would only get a reasonable harvest once every 10 years.

While Dr McMahon was there, the tensions between ethnic groups were rising and often their reserve food stocks would be raided.

This left communities with nothing and the possibility of waiting another decade for reasonable crops.

“I think this is still a big problem for the Bantu population in that it's their food stocks which are looted,” says Jenny.

This means that when the rainy season arrives and not a drop falls from the sky, hundreds of thousands of people find themselves without food and water which has enormous implications for the population now and in the future.

The current situation

While it may feel to some as though the problems facing countries in the Sahel region are much the same as they once were, Dr McMahon believes they are very different.

The political situation, for one, has changed dramatically in most areas. Dr McMahon cites the success of Liberia, Rwanda, Angola, Mozambique and Sierra Leone developmentally and politically as an example.

She’s also optimistic about the progress that has been made when it comes to addressing famine and food shortages in developing areas.

“Research suggests that if you can re-establish nutritional levels and rehabilitate children before they're six, than there aren't any catastrophic long-term effects,” she says.

“What's different between then and now when it comes to famine is that it used to take three months to rehabilitate someone. Since then we've actually figured out a way to spin the milk into the individual amino acids and add vitamins in, everything except iron, so now it only takes three weeks to rehabilitate someone.”

How to help

Early intervention is incredibly important when it comes to addressing famine and can stop or arrest the decline into destitution and decades of public health issues for a developing country.

If the situation is left too long, it can lead to chronic malnutrition which leads to slow development and overburdens health systems.

Red Cross is currently working in communities affected by drought in the Sahel and Horn of Africa, including Somalia, South Sudan, Nigeria, and Yemen.

Funds raised through New Zealand Red Cross’ “Africa Famine Appeal” will be used to help Red Cross fight malnutrition in children and implement cash for food programmes.