“Someday there will be no excuse for looking back and saying why didn’t we do more, more quickly,” warned UNICEF’s director Anthony Lake as he addressed journalists in Geneva last month.
Fresh back from Chad where he witnessed children dying of malnutrition, Lake was joined by the heads of the World Health Organisation (WHO) and UNHCR in April for a rare inter-agency public statement on the humanitarian crisis facing parts of West Africa.
Their key call was for an end to the “global indifference” plaguing the Sahel region and they urged the international community to take action to prevent the looming catastrophe while there was still a window of opportunity.
Drought, high food prices and chronic poverty have combined with displacement caused by the Malian uprising to create a potential perfect storm in the Sahel. The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has warned that more than 16 million people directly at risk of food insecurity and malnutrition this year.
Yet unlike tsunami or earthquakes, droughts and food price increases take time to develop, and the resulting hunger crises are forecast well in advance. As early as last December the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) launched a strategy to better respond to the risk of a new food and nutritional crisis in the region. By January the Famine Early Warning System (FEWS) indicated that famine was imminent in parts of Mali, Mauritania and Burkina Faso.
Despite this, more than three and a half months after the UN issued an appeal for $724m to fund a humanitarian response but less than half the amount has been funded. The politics of international assistance is partly to blame. In an era of austerity medium- and long-term planning is often the first thing to be cut from an aid budget. But many agencies and NGOs have been openly critical that this has been a largely off-camera crisis.
However Charlie Beckett, director at the London School of Economics’ forum for research and debate on international journalism was less convinced that the media is the guilty culprit in this story. The former Channel 4 News programme editor said: “’It might be unrealistic to expect mainstream news to put something that hasn’t happened yet at the top of a bulletin or on the front page, especially when there are so many real stories happening right now.”
The challenge of responding to multiple crises in a single-issue world is one that the UNHCR High Commissioner, António Gutteres acknowledged during the Geneva press briefing. Yet he insisted that while fighting in Syria had pushed other pertinent issues off the international news agenda there remained a responsibility to act in a manner that not only addressed the short-term symptoms but attempted to solve the underlying issues causing food insecurity.
Like trying to clear a garden of weeds by simply pulling out the leaves, trying to address food insecurity by dealing only with its symptoms is destined to fail to meet the affected community’s long-term needs. The common factor in these crises which emerges time and again is a form of poverty that is shaped by multiple, interacting causes.
This complex reality sits uneasily alongside the “flies in their eyes” type of fundraising that many NGOs report has become increasingly prevalent as Western economies worsen. Organisations who understand this are taking steps to break down the barriers between relief, recovery and development by incorporating disaster risk reduction into their brief.
Preventative programs are not only cheaper to run than costly and often inefficient food aid operations but they are also more sustainable as they harness and develop the skills and knowledge of local residents.
One such charity that has shown how mitigation and preparedness can help create a more sustainable form of development is Practical Action. Ditching the conventions of relying on relief measures, the Rugby-based NGO works with local communities across the developing world to enable them to prepare for, cope with and adapt to future hazards by building stronger livelihoods, disaster risk management and increasing food security.
Such an approach does create fundraising challenges as the charity readily admits. “An emotional response is always the best way to prompt giving – people give to people. But we won’t over-dramatize or provide just one very emotional part of the story,” said spokeswoman Abbie Upton.
Much of the charity’s fundraising is sought via niche publications like the Ecologist and Church Times as opposed to mainstream media, thus allowing them to reach an audience that is more likely to respond to thoughtful propositions or through direct presentations.
Such donations have enabled Practical Action to launch a Drought Preparedness Project in Namoroputh on the Ethiopian border. This life-changing venture for some of the most vulnerable families in the world has brought an oasis of green garden vegetables to an otherwise dry and arid neighbourhood.
Large green leaves of kales, cow peas, sorghum, beans and a pumpkin plant jostle for space in the 10m x 5m piece of land that has become a precious treasure that is a testament to how a small water project can impact on the lives of many people.
“After Practical Action set up the water supply system in the village, I couldn’t resist the urge to be the pioneer of vegetable farming,” said Martha Emase, the owner of the first kitchen garden in Namoroputh location. “It’s beyond my imagination how in less than fifteen months my community and I have moved from accounting for every drop of water to channelling waste water to our small plots.”
The truth is that droughts cannot be stopped and the potential crises cannot be solved by humanitarian interventions alone. As a FAO report published earlier this year stated: “The real challenge is to break the recurrent cycles of food and nutritional crises that continue to weaken communities’ resilience.” The increasing trend towards projects such as those run by Practical Action which take a longer-term approach to development and work with local communities offer a ray of hope in preventing the famine next time.