10 July 2012

Old is New Again in the Sahel Response

Nancy Lindborg, USAID's Assistant Administrator of the Bureau for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance, says the response to the current Sahel crisis needs a new approach. She outlines the new approach in the Huffington Post.
1. Early action in response to early warning: Last fall, thanks to early warning systems, we saw signs of the tough lean season ahead for the Sahel. USAID began committing food commodities as early as November and, in February, I traveled to Niger and Burkina Faso to assess the worsening situation and identify programs that work firsthand. As of July 1, 2012, more than 74,000 metric tons of food has arrived in the region out of a total of approximately 107,000 metric tons purchased, the rest of which will arrive in the next 30 to 45 days. This food will reach approximately 3.2 million people. The U.S. commitment to a strong humanitarian response and helping those in need remains unwavering.

2. A smarter, targeted and market-sensitive humanitarian response: We are determined to ensure our assistance is building resilience even as we save lives. Because food markets are still functioning in the Sahel — albeit at higher than normal prices — our cash-based programs allow vulnerable families and communities to access locally available food and basic goods in addition to our in-kind food aid. Through food vouchers, cash transfers, and temporary work opportunities, we support local markets and develop land reclamation and sustainable agriculture practices even while responding to acute needs now. In addition to including new food products and efforts to strengthen nutrition, our emergency programs are helping families keep livestock healthy and alive, as cows, sheep and goats are tantamount to savings accounts for many pastoralist families. And we are focused especially on women, as we know they are key to their families’ futures and to the health of their children.

3. More effectively connecting our relief and development programs: As we did in the Horn of Africa, we are bringing our relief and development teams together to identify ways to layer, integrate, and sequence programs with the goal of creating long term resilience. Later this month, I will return to the region to join colleagues in Dakar, Senegal who are leading our Sahel Joint Planning Cell (JPC), a comprehensive effort to connect our range of relief and development work in the field and in Washington to apply our humanitarian resources for the greatest good. Moreover, the JPC is working in lockstep with Feed the Future, President Obama’s landmark initiative to increase food security by battling the root causes of poverty and undernutrition through increased investments in agriculture-led economic growth.

4. Working in partnership with the international community to support effective country-led plans: At a recent high-level meeting with the EU Commission in Brussels, along with other donor governments, U.N. agencies, regional institutions, and humanitarian and development aid organizations, we reaffirmed our commitment to helping communities in the Sahel improve their ability to withstand future emergencies by forming the Global Alliance for Resilience Initiative-Sahel (AGIR-Sahel). This new partnership is linked to the Global Alliance for Action for Drought Resilience and Growth stood up together with international partners and African leaders in Nairobi this April with a focus on new country frameworks and mutual accountability.
All of the suggestions are not actually new. We know prevention is the key, programs should be coordinated and targeted, and partnering with local governments is vital. That sums up what may consider to be the larger problems with aid. The challenge is actually achieving all those goals.

Hiring more local contractors is a good step from USAID. OCHA taking a bigger role helps with coordination. The decision by WFP to try to source more food locally is another positive development. Though with all the talk of resilience, the need to achieve what Lindborg lays out is all the more necessary to make the overused word actually mean something.

Thus far, the response for the Sahel is woefully underfunded.

Even the big agencies are well behind their fundraising targets. If all the ideas set out by Lindborg were put into action the response would still be severely hampered. One part of the problem is telling the story about the Sahel. It is one that, like the Horn of Africa, boomerangs back every few years. Given tight finances around the world, it has not been easy to get the support needed.

The Horn of Africa got a boost when famine was declared at this point last year. The Sahel, as it looks right now, does not seem to be on the path to meet the classification as famine. A boost in coverage will help right now, but there is a fundamental problem when such crises arise and the response is not adequate.

Maybe it is time to start talking about resilient aid communications, education and reporting. I am still in the process of conducting interviews and gathering information on the Sahel to figure out how to tell the story in a different way. I will share what I have so far over the next few days to get your feedback and try to to shape the narrative.