Drought response – lessons still to learn

A somali refugee inside her tent at Dadaab refugee camp
A somali refugee inside her tent at Dadaab refugee camp (Zahra Moloo/IRIN)

Move away from “food-first” responses and lay more stress on water and livelihoods; intervene early - it saves money and lives: These are a couple of the lessons emerging from the past four years of drought response, according to the Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance (ALNAP).

ALNAP pored over 200 evaluations and lessons-learned reports since 2007. “The fact that 200 lessons-learned reports have been done is a sign of progress,” said Paul Knox-Clarke head of research and communications at ALNAP. “Agencies are now more consistent and rigorous in terms of thinking about what they’re doing, and recording it.”

Areas of progress include far more sophisticated cash responses - there has been “vast learning” about using cash in drought situations, said Knox-Clarke; while the development-to-relief continuum is now pretty much accepted as the way forward in drought situations, “there seems to be little argument about the need for disaster-aware development programmes, and humanitarian programmes that can look more long-term and segue into livelihoods models,” he continued.

Likewise, beneficiary accountability has significantly improved he said.

But where the whole system needs to buck up, is responding to early warning. “So much good work has been done around early warning systems, but this still does not necessarily trigger response,” said Knox-Clarke.

Here are some of the lessons outlined in the report:

1. Food aid does not meet many of the humanitarian needs caused by drought, according to European Union humanitarian agency ECHO. Beneficiaries in the Horn of Africa drought in 2008-9 said they were grateful for the food, but really needed water, seeds and fodder. Agencies should move away from “food-first” responses - most assessments focus “disproportionately” on food security, which can lead to “inappropriate interventions”, says ALNAP. Up to 70 percent of the Horn of Africa humanitarian appeals have focused on food since 2005, and only 15 percent on livelihoods. Assessments should equally evaluate health, water, fodder, market needs and nutrition indicators.

2. While there has been a lot of learning about the best ways to help pastoralists in droughts- setting up fodder storage and water points on migration routes; hay-making; timely destocking; cash transfers; cross-border response; applying LEGS minimum standards for livestock; these are rarely, if ever, implemented on a sufficient scale to make a significant difference.

3. Agencies and donors still do not pay enough attention to livelihoods: there is no livelihoods cluster and the Central Emergency Response Fund does not prioritize them as they are not considered “life-saving”, but this does not tally with people’s priorities on the ground.

4. Agencies and donors should get creative with their market interventions: consider index-based insurance (i.e. weather or crop insurance); food, milk and seed vouchers; subsidizing food; handing out cash.

5. Timely cash injections can save the need for more costly interventions later. Many beneficiaries respond best to a combination of cash and other responses. For instance, in Somalia in 2009 children receiving therapeutic feeding with Save the Children UK gained weight 45 percent more quickly when their families were also receiving cash vouchers. While the use of cash in emergencies has increased 100-fold over the last decade, more careful market analysis is still needed to make cash injections work well.

6. Timely water interventions - such as rebuilding water points, and setting up water management systems - are rarely well-funded or successfully implemented, so agencies often resort to trucking in water, which is expensive. Too often water programmes also reinforce social hierarchies - water assessments should take these factors into account.

7. Early warning triggers are much better than they used to be, but are still not necessarily acted upon. Getting in early in most interventions, saves cash: in southern Ethiopia, Save the Children US found it cost US$1 to help a pastoralist destock, which released enough money to feed their families for two months - the equivalent in food aid would have cost the agency $165.

8. Donors should be flexible with their development funding to respond to drought scenarios. ALNAP gives credit where credit is due: governments, donors and aid agencies are trying to move beyond the humanitarian-development divide in the current Horn of Africa drought response. Agencies should also practice “drought cycle management” - in other words, base responses on the cyclical nature of droughts. Oxfam in Wajir, Kenya, used flexible funds to repeatedly change its objectives from supporting livestock markets, to increasing trade, to helping pastoralists destock; to vaccinating animals as the crisis developed.

9. The better the vulnerability assessment, the more likely donors are to respond to it. For instance, the high-quality work produced by the Southern Africa “Vulnerability Assessment Committee” - with 36 members from government, NGOs, UN and donors - has sped up donor response to drought in the region. Agencies should be vigilant that assessments do not overlook vulnerable groups - such as poorer pastoralists, the elderly, or the displaced. NGO HelpAge International found high levels of malnutrition in the elderly in Borana, Ethiopia, in the 2000 drought, as they had been skipping meals to feed children, but only under-five malnutrition was originally assessed.

10. Accountability to beneficiaries is much better, still not good enough: It needs to improve with stronger (and more culturally appropriate) communication with local communities, participatory assessments and better trained staff.

11. Again, repeated for over a decade: response should aim to support local coping techniques - such as building on traditional knowledge and coping systems - rather than imposing new ones.

12. Cut down the paperwork: to relieve aid agencies from spending a “disproportionate amount of time on timelines, log-frames and budgets”. Donors should consider more pooled funds to decrease reporting requirements.

13. And finally, not enough is known about what local NGOs are doing to help reduce the impact of droughts; how locals help themselves and each other in drought situations; and too little attention has thus far been paid to the cost-effectiveness of different drought responses (measuring this against impact). More research is needed in each of these areas, says ALNAP.



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