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As large parts of the Horn of Africa and East Africa remain caught in the grip of a food crisis, international development agencies are extending support through food and water aid. They are doing a brilliant job in helping save lives. This is not the first time they are doing it.

Large parts of the region are structurally food insecure. Structural deficit means that even in a good year, the country is unable to feed its entire population. Please note that I do not mean grow enough food to feed its population. I mean create enough wealth to feed the population. Food security issues in the region are chronic. Rising population, environmental degradation and climate variability are exacerbating the problem.

Development actors including governments, INGOs, donors and international agencies respond to these crises in two stages. The ‘relief’ stage sees interventions like food aid, unconditional cash transfers, food/cash-for-work, boreholes and water-trucking.  These responses, all lying in the humanitarian space, do a lot to help address immediate needs of the people, thereby helping save lives.

The ‘recovery’ stage also includes cash transfers and water trucking, but extends to livelihood support. Could be providing seeds and other inputs to farmers, livestock to pastoralists and working capital support to help the asset-less start enterprises.

The question in my mind is “Do any of these interventions actually address the root causes of the problems?” Sadly. No.  Not to any degree of sustainability.

What realistically happens is that the immediate problems are addressed and the need to do something pushed to the coming year(s). sadly, trends show that the frequency of the need for these responses is increasing.

Consequences (unintended) of short term thinking

1.  Aid ensures that the localised economy is artificially propped up :  there are provinces in the Horn and East of Africa where aid contributes anywhere between 40-60% of the local economy and over 90% of the population is classified as food-insecure and thus permanent target of food/cash aid.

    • Animal destocking (paying people to slaughter their livestock when there are fodder and water shortages) and restocking (paying people to buy livestock when the immediate crisis passes) create a sense of artificial viability in (small-holding) livestock business.
    • Agriculture inputs does the same to sub-subsistence agriculture.
    • Injecting cash in the economy invariably leads to local inflation making it even more difficult for those who do not get cash aid to survive. One of the ‘solutions’ that has come up for this is blanket cash transfers which could be a potential nightmare from the logistics point.
    • Knowing that aid will be available, there is a very distinct possibility of communities & households not exerting that bit more to dig themselves out of the hole of unviable livelihoods. There are communities in Africa who have been recipients of aid for years and years.

Surely this cannot be viable in the long run?  With the growing economic crisis round the developed world, there is going to be a day when humanitarian aid will get severely constricted leading to problems of unimaginable proportions. Even if there is no economic crisis, there is a possibility of donor fatigue  setting in

2.   Settlements are formed in fundamentally unviable areas. This is how it happens. An important response in emergencies is establishing water points (boreholes & tanks say) on pastoral migration tracts.  When water points are created settlements grow around them as households from the neighbouring dry areas move closer to the source of water. This leads to increased demands for support – food aid, health services, education etc. This also leads to reducing the availability of water to the migrating livestock – the original reason for establishing water points. These emergency water sources, which were never meant to provide permanent support for large numbers of people, dry out. Since people are now settled there, in what perhaps was fundamentally an unviable area for a settlement in the first place,  the only options left are to dig more bore-holes depleting underground reserves or trucking water. Both options are extremely expensive and unviable in the long run. Once a settlement happens, it is politically very difficult to move people again. This leads to a need for continued and increasing ‘humanitarian’ support in the years to come.

3.  Governments no longer feel the need to invest in long term measures to address food insecurity. They know that the humanitarian imperative will ensure that international agencies (World Food Programme for instance) will respond every year as they have been for decades. This has led to a faintly ridiculous situation where WFP is repeatedly called on to support with food aid in the same area for years.

4.  Funds needed for repeated humanitarian relief constrict the scope of raising substantial development funds.  It is no brainer to understand that investment in the appropriate long term solutions now would significantly reduce the need for humanitarian relief in the future. It does not happen though simply because the crisis sucks ups all available funds. Long term measures are pushed to the side and any efforts in this direction are rarely at a scale that would make an impact.

Point is that almost annual responses to crisis are not changing the situation on the ground at all. I am forced to ask myself, “are development actors, (in)advertently enabling unviable livelihoods to survive?”

I think that to a very large extent they ARE doing so.

In some cases it is probably because

  • they are not strategizing enough and / or
  • it suits some of them to keep a mass of people in this condition – politically or financially or for justifying their own existence (yeah you can call me a conspiracy theorist but there are enough examples of this going around).
  • The solutions they are using are necessarily short term and simplistic when radically different thinking is required. As Einstein had once famously said “We cannot solve a problem by using the same type of thinking we used when we created it.”

Most development actors have been present in these areas for decades. It is necessary to see for themselves whether they are now part of the solution or actually part of the problem.

What, if anything, can be done?

Even as I say all this, I know that it easy to critique and even easier to just criticise. What, if anything, can be done? Should be done?

I don’t profess to have solutions but maybe it is time to try something. Perhaps development actors could (should?)

  • Weave humanitarian responses into long term strategies so that they don’t work in cross purposes – a genuinely integrated approach to programming rather than looking at each in isolation.
    • Cash or food for work helping build long term infrastructure like the then path breaking Employment Guarantee Scheme in Maharashtra (India) had envisaged rather than creating ‘work’ by digging holes for 20 days and filling them up over another 20.
    • Using cash transfers instead of food aid and using the cash injection in the local economies to boost markets. At the community level we have experiences of households using part of the cash transferred to set up small enterprises.
    • Plan humanitarian interventions with a little more analysis of the unintended consequences under the principles of Do No Harm.
  • Make strategic investments in long term development – ‘borrow’ from funds required for future humanitarian responses to invest NOW. Easier said than done I know but frankly all it needs is genuine political will not ‘feel-good’ blah blah.
  • Invest in improving governance and accountability so that citizens can have the space and voice in demanding long term development interventions from government. Amartya Sen had once famously said that droughts are natural but famines are man-made. India is a classic example of this. There have been many droughts but no famine, not since 1943.

Will these work? Frankly, I don’t know.

Should we try something different? Hell yes. Cos it is clear that what we have done in the last 40 years has clearly not worked well enough or we would not be talking about the problem now.