Cascading crises make it clear: We must change the way we do humanitarian aid

Author(s) Rein Paulsen
Women living in refugee camps due to drought in Somalia are waiting for water distribution
Amors photos/Shutterstock

Afghanistan features prominently in all of our minds currently. As we see images stories of people trying desperately to leave the country, there is a major concern for those staying: a food crisis of staggering proportions.

The situation in Afghanistan is the result of multiple compounding risks. While some, such as the ongoing drought, had been forecast and acted upon, the complexity of the situation now requires that humanitarian assistance is scaled up to meet increasing needs.

There are many potential food crisis situations globally that would benefit from proactive rather than reactive approaches. If the world can act before the situation becomes dire, millions of lives could be saved. This is not hyperbole. It is demonstrable fact. Indeed, this kind of proactive thinking is exactly what we need when facing any crisis.

Disasters like floods, droughts, and outbreaks of violence never happen in vacuums - as we saw while dealing with these during the COVID-19 pandemic these past 18 months. As we navigate increasing and ever-more intense and interlinked global challenges, the need to change the way we fund humanitarian assistance and the way in which we provide it has never been clearer. 

In 2020, while COVID-19 killed millions and forced us into isolation, 155 million people in 55 countries also dealt with acute hunger due to conflict, economic shocks, and extreme weather events, exacerbated by the socioeconomic effects of the pandemic. Over 41 million people worldwide are now at risk of falling into famine or famine-like conditions, unless they receive immediate life-saving assistance. That is the highest number of people reported since the Global Report on Food Crises was first issued in 2017, and a massive jump from 2019 when 135 million people faced acute hunger.

There is a better way to respond to emergencies; a way that is more supportive of vulnerable households, more financially effective, and, more logistically efficient.

The human suffering is unimaginable.  The cost of responding to these acute needs continues to increase. Humanitarian funding to the food sector has steadily risen  – an increase of more than $1.5 billion from 2016 to 2019 to be precise. And it still is not enough to end acute hunger.

But there is a way forward for those in danger of facing famine and acute food insecurity: acting before a crisis reaches its peak, rather than reacting after the worst has already happened. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), working with governments and partners like the World Food Programme (WFP), United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement, START Network and others, have boldly embarked on this path. FAO believes it points to the future of humanitarian action.

The way humanitarian aid has functioned for decades is as a response:  identify people who have been affected by a disaster, understand how many there are and what they need, and then deploy the money and inputs required to help them. It is a tried-and-true method and has helped hundreds of millions of people in their hours of need, saving countless lives

There is a better way to respond in many cases; a way that is more supportive of vulnerable households, more financially effective, and, more logistically efficient.

We are all stuck in the same, seemingly never-ending cycle of responding after the full effects of a disaster are felt by vulnerable households. The Anticipatory Action approach can help break that cycle. Using forecasting tools, working closely with governments, and using historical knowledge of the impact of previous crises not only helps prevent famine, or the collapse of a local economy faltering after a flood or drought, but in a world of limited humanitarian funding, it saves precious financial resources.

To be clear, Anticipatory Action is not just a theoretical approach. It is a proven way to manage the fallout from a climate disaster or conflict. We have early warning systems in place and a clear understanding of how disasters evolve in order to pre-empt the worst impacts. By providing smallholder farmers with drought-resistant seeds, cash, the right farming and storage tools, animal feed, water harvesting and irrigation equipment ahead of shocks, the FAO and its partners are able to empower communities to save themselves and avoid a food crisis and the immense expense of emergency aid.

In the Philippines, for example, we used our forecasting tools and saw a drought was about to hit one of the islands. FAO and its partners were able to intervene a whole four and a half months ahead of a standard drought response to give vulnerable rice farmers drought-tolerant rice seeds, livestock and vegetable seeds, as well as water equipment they needed to make sure their crops survived. We also engaged with communities to educate them on drought risks and how to mitigate them. For every dollar invested, farmers received 4.4 dollars in avoided losses and added benefits.

Anticipatory action works and its profile is growing, but we need to scale it up exponentially.

Last year, swarms of Desert Locusts spread through the Horn of Africa, threatening to devastate crops and livelihoods. FAO’s anticipatory action, working with governments, helped contain the worst locust upsurge recorded in some areas for 70 years. Locust control and livelihood protection measures prevented massive losses of staple crops and livestock valued at 1.7 billion dollars, protecting the food security of over 40 million people.

Anticipatory action works and its profile is growing, but we need to scale it up exponentially. Often it is the heartbreaking images or stories that drive humanitarian aid funding. Waiting for those images before acting is simply not right. We can no longer wait for an emergency to happen before funding actions to preempt the worst consequences. We simply must be better that this.

This month world leaders will be able to meet in person at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) for the first time since the pandemic started. If we have learned anything from this global disaster it is that if we had been better prepared for it, many people would not still be suffering. The UNGA High-Level Humanitarian Event on Anticipatory Action on 9 September must mark the milestone when the international community agreed to shift away from post-disaster responses to proactively saving lives and livelihoods. As we have all been told, there is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come.

This blog was written ahead of the High-Level event on Anticipatory Action.

Rein Paulsen is the Director of the Office of Emergencies and Resilience at FAO, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Prior to joining FAO, Mr Paulsen served as Director ad interim of the Coordination Division at the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Geneva, Switzerland. In this role within OCHA’s Top Management Team, he had responsibility for the Response Services Branch, the Assessment Planning and Monitoring Branch, as well as the Inter-Agency Services Branch. He previously served as Head of OCHA’s Regional Office for Latin America and the Caribbean in Panama City, Panama, from 2018 to 2020. He joined OCHA in 2015, as Head of Office in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in Kinshasa. Mr Paulsen has longstanding experience in the NGO sector, including with World Vision International (WVI) and the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA).

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