This year, 13 million people in the Horn of Africa were affected by the region’s worst drought in six decades. Two successive crop failures resulted in widespread food shortages and malnutrition, a decrease in household incomes and purchasing power, a painful spike in the cost of basic staple foods, and the migration of about 800,000 people into refugee camps.
But as Amie Newman and Tom Murphy have noted, the drought has highlighted the value of response efforts that focus on building long-term resilience to future shocks, and it has created opportunities for small farmers and livestock owners to build back better.
At the foundation, the vast majority of our resources for health and development are invested in long-term strategies to remove barriers and give everyone an opportunity to lead a productive life. Occasionally, however, we provide funding to support emergency response to sudden humanitarian crises like the drought in the Horn of Africa or flooding in Asia. Most of our grant-making in this area provides fast-track funding so that trusted, on-the-ground partners can respond to emergencies in the critical first 24-48 hours.
But we have also made a concerted effort to provide funding for medium- and long-term interventions following disasters. As communities recover, they can take active and determined steps to rebuild smarter and stronger than before. Once basic needs are being met, communities and donors can work together to implement long-term strategies, such as building better homes, planting hardier seeds, digging fresh wells, developing new sources of income, and creating access to financial services that can help families manage risk and survive future shocks.
Donors can use disaster response as a strategic opportunity to focus on the specific needs of the poor and accelerate global poverty reduction. Because the poor have fewer resources to cope with disasters, they tend to be disproportionately affected by humanitarian crises. And effective disaster response can stimulate lasting social and economic change by ensuring that people living in poverty are equipped with better tools to manage shocks and mitigate risk.
USAID Assistant Administrator Nancy Lindborg recently discussed the transformative potential of disaster recovery at Global Washington’s November 2011 conference, “Opportunities and Obstacles in Turbulent Times.” (Watch the plenary here!).
Ms. Lindborg underscored the need for continued focus on the Horn of Africa once the emergency response phase ends:
“This is a huge crisis, but embedded in it are opportunities and ways of moving forward that we are seeing bear fruit in Ethiopia and Kenya,” she said. “We need to grab this moment and renew our commitment.”
Lindborg noted that Ethiopia and Kenya have successfully applied lessons learned from past disasters to avert the catastrophic type of famine that devastated southern Somalia in 2011. And valued foundation partners like Oxfam and Mercy Corps are currently helping communities adopt sustainable approaches to drought management, including cash-for-work programs that let families rebuild their incomes while supporting the development of wells, dams, and other critical investments in community infrastructure.
As we celebrate the holiday season and look toward a new year, let’s take this moment to recognize the power of the human spirit and the virtue of partnership. While the crisis in the Horn of Africa has not ended, rebuilding efforts undertaken in collaboration with local communities are renewing optimism and planting the seeds for a better future.