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Archives for Disaster Relief

From Conflict to Coping

Tisda, Mercy Corps Program Officer, in Ethiopia. Photo Credit: Erin Gray, Mercy Corps

Last summer, amidst the Horn of Africa’s worst drought in generations, Mercy Corps received encouraging news from local officials in the Somali-Oromiya region of Ethiopia.  In this area – long known for conflict, scarce resources and harsh conditions – communities that had participated in USAID-supported Mercy Corps peacebuilding efforts were reportedly coping better than they had during less severe droughts in the past.

We were intrigued, so we sent out a research team—and the findings were striking: when local conflict had been addressed, people were far better equipped to survive the drought.

To understand why, put yourself in the position of an Ethiopian herder.  When a drought hits, you can cope in several ways.  First, you will sell the weakest animals in your herd, raising cash to meet your family’s short-term needs while reducing grazing pressure on a water-scare environment. You may migrate with the remaining herd to areas where the grazing potential is better.  Along the way, you will rely on sharing access to scarce remaining water resources wherever you go.

Yet conflict can make these coping mechanisms impossible – blocking market access, freedom of movement, and access to shared resources like water. In this part of Ethiopia, population pressure and climate change had strained resources, spurring violence that in 2008-09 resulted in massive loss of lives and assets. In response to that conflict, Mercy Corps initiated a peacebuilding process in 2009 with support from USAID.  We helped participating communities focus on establishing peaceful relations, economic linkages, and joint management of natural resources.

A “resilience” approach to aid focuses on understanding, and improving, how communities cope with drought and other shocks.  Instead of just providing assistance that meets immediate material needs, a resilience approach also focuses on factors that affect a community’s ability to cope.  As Mercy Corps found last summer in Ethiopia, this often means focusing on factors that fall well outside the traditional assistance toolkit.

The program had focused on reducing violence – but our researchers found that it also built resilience along the way. Communities that participated in Mercy Corps’ program reported greater freedom of movement and fewer barriers to accessing resources, markets and public services than did non-participating communities. They identified greater freedom of movement as the single most important factor contributing to their ability to cope and adapt to the severe drought conditions. As one herder from the Wachile community said, “It is very difficult to use or access dry reserves (grazing areas) located in contending communities in a situation where there is no peace…the peace dialogues in the area have improved community interaction and helped us to access these resources.”

Our research report – titled Conflict to Coping – confirmed the important link between conflict and resilience in this region, and demonstrated that effective peacebuilding interventions help build resilience to crises.  Participating communities showed less reliance on distressful coping strategies, especially depletion of productive assets, than other communities. Importantly, the increased peace and security has allowed participating communities to employ more effective livelihood coping strategies, enabling them to better cope with extreme droughts.

USAID Book Club: A Farewell to Alms

Fall semester @USAID banner image

As part of USAID’s Fall Semester, we will host an online book club for our readers this fall. The Impact Blog will post suggestions from our senior experts at USAID to suggest a book on important issues in international development.  We’ll provide you and your book club with the reading suggestions and discussion questions, and you tell us what you think! Our fall reading list will  explore solutions to the most pressing global challenges in international development—mobile solutions, poverty, hunger, health, economic growth, and agriculture.

This week’s choice comes from: USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah

Dr. Rajiv Shah serves as the 16th Administrator of USAID and leads the efforts of more than 8,000 professionals in 80 missions around the world.

Dr. Rajiv Shah serves as the 16th Administrator of USAID and leads the efforts of more than 8,000 professionals in 80 missions around the world.

Book: A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World, by Gregory Clark

Synopsis: The source of human progress has long been a subject of debate. What makes rich countries rich, and poor countries poor? In the this book,  University of California, Davis, Economist Gregory Clark offers a provocative take on the age-old question, arguing that it was culture—rather than geography, natural resources or centuries of exploitation—that left some parts of the globe behind.

According to Clark, relative stability and effective workforces enabled certain societies to take better advantage of the Industrial Revolution’s new technologies and opportunities. Those countries with lax systems or undisciplined workers lost ground, and stayed there.

Clark’s book is skeptical of whether the poorest parts of the world will ever achieve real progress. For development professionals, it offers up a challenge to the belief that outside intervention can help bridge the vast economic divide between rich and poor.

Review:  This book impacted me because it shows how for hundreds, or even thousands, of years basic economic progress was largely stagnant. You didn’t have rapid compound increases in living standards until the Industrial Revolution when some countries and some societies got on a pathway towards growth – towards better health, longer life expectancy, higher income per person and more investment in education. Others remained on a slower-moving pathway.

That great divergence, and the study of it, is at the core of development. It is that divergence that we try to learn from and correct for. We define success in development as helping communities and countries get on that pathway towards improved health and education, and greater wealth creation.

I didn’t choose this book because I think it is the definitive story on development, but rather because I share its focus on core economic growth as the driver of divergence.

I disagree where Clark concludes that some societies failed to take advantage of the availability of modern technology because their cultures were antagonistic to development. With the right conditions in place, you can unlock a formidable work ethic from a range of different cultures and communities. The last 50 years have shown us that. By investing in local capacity and local institutions, we can leave a legacy of economic infrastructure, strong and capable leadership, and transparent, effective public and private sector institutions.

USAID’s partnerships in Latin America helped country after country develop strong institutions. The same can be said for South Korea. Unfortunately, there have been examples where aid and assistance have been provided in a manner that was not as sensitive to building lasting local capacity and institutions. This is true for all partners, not just our Agency. That’s why we’ve launched a program called USAID Forward, to refocus on working in a way that will create durable and sustained progress.

Administrator Shah is on Twitter at @rajshah. You  can also “Ask the Administrator” your questions on Crowdhall

Discussion Questions

1. Do you agree with Clark that some societies failed to take advantage of the availability of modern technology because their cultures were antagonistic to development?

2. The Nobel prize-winning economist Robert Solow has said Clark does not take into account how institutional factors, such as cronyism, inequitable taxation and ineffectual government cripple development. What role do you think these institutional factors play?

3. Clark challenges how effective outside intervention can be in helping poor nations progress. Do you agree?

4. Regardless of why some nations have fallen behind, how do you think they can bridge that gap today?

5. Has your world view changed after reading this book and how?

Get Involved: Use the comments section of this blog post to share your answers, or tweet them to us at #fallsemester

Video of the Week: Bee Keeping in Pakistan

 

The floods of 2010 destroyed many people’s farms and  means of income in Swat Valley of Pakistan.  USAID is helping these people get back on their feet.  See the full series of videos, including bee farms, medicinal herbs, fish farms, and more on the USAID Pakistan Mission’s YouTube account.

Pounds of Prevention – Focus on the Philippines

In this installment of Pounds of Prevention (PDF), we take a look at how one community in the Philippines-Mabitac-has reduced the negative impacts of floods, even in the midst of what occurred in August 2012.  Through timely, concerted efforts, the municipal authorities and residents have turned potentially life-altering disasters into manageable challenges for which they can prepare and move beyond more quickly.

We invite you to  read more about the specific waste management and emergency preparedness activities undertaken, and the important role USAID and partners have played in the process.

Pounds of Prevention – Focus on Brazil

Residents of Ceará State employ many techniques to protect their livelihoods from the negative effects of drought. Here community members work to construct cylindrical wells and underground reservoirs that collect and conserve water. Photo Credit: Cáritas Brasileira

In this next installment in the Pounds of Prevention  series, we travel to Ceará State in northeastern Brazil, which is in the midst of a severe drought.

Over the past few years, the area has faced increasingly frequent drought conditions and rural residents face difficult choices.They include whether to abandon their farms and move to urban centers or to rely on water trucked in by the government.

More recently, however, community organizations have worked with experts from USAID’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance on strategies to minimize the negative impacts from droughts and adapt their livelihoods in such a way that makes families more resilient.

Using a variety of techniques to conserve water, enhance agricultural practices, and diversify income sources, residents have mitigated the risk of drought. They are now are reenergized about the future of their communities.

Pounds of Prevention: Colombia

In this next installment in the Pounds of Prevention series, we travel to South America, to Colombia, a country with several active volcanoes that USAID and the U.S. Geological Survey help monitor. The article tells what happened on June 30, 2012, when the Nevado del Ruiz Volcano erupted briefly.

Marta Calvache, the head of the volcano hazards program in Colombia, explains the impacts of the 1985 eruption of Nevado del Ruiz Volcano. Photo: Wendy McCausland, VDAP

In contrast to the tragic result of the 1985 eruption that destroyed an entire village, on this day, the people and government took immediate preparedness measures and executed timely evacuations. The article also gives insight into how USAID and interagency partners like the U.S. Geological Survey provide support to countries to reduce their disaster risk and lessen the damage from natural hazards like volcanoes.

Progress in Haiti

Thomas C. Adams serves as Haiti Special Coordinator at the U.S. Department of State, and Mark Feierstein serves as Assistant Administrator for Latin America and the Caribbean at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

The government of Haiti recently addressed the double bind their country often faces when the international media covers the development that is occurring in Haiti, identifying either how development is slow in coming or that the development that is occurring is harmful. We anticipate an upcoming AP article may reflect this same perspective. Haiti is working tirelessly to overcome adversity that existed even before the earthquake and to begin to build a stable and sustainable foundation for economic prosperity and societal stability.

Like many other Haiti donors, the United States government has been a proud partner of the government and people of Haiti. We have approached our work in a fundamentally different way. We have followed the lead of the government and people of Haiti, and we have sought for our development assistance not only to provide aid, but long-term sustainable investment as well. Our investments fall into four areas prioritized by the government: agriculture, health care, infrastructure and rule of law/security. And, while the assistance the United States is providing today is not always immediately apparent, the investments we are making will be lasting.

Haiti has a long way to go. Yet, there are successes. We want to share a few that sometimes go unreported.

  1. More than 1.1 million Haitians have moved out of temporary tent camps. The U.S. government, through USAID, has worked with the government and people of Haiti to repair damaged homes, build transitional shelters and provide rental support. These efforts alone have benefited more than 328,000 people.
  2. The government of Haiti ensured more children are attending school, paying the tuition of 850,000 primary school students and enabling 142,000 new students to attend school this past year alone.
  3. In the North, one of the poorest regions of the country, the government of Haiti is leading one of the largest and most ambitious regional development efforts in the country’s history. Haiti has lead the U.S. government, the Inter-American Development Bank, and businesses — including domestic and foreign — to invest in the future of the region. The Caracol Industrial Park, for example, began operations at one factory in April. A modern power plant that provides electricity to the Park’s factories and surrounding communities is up and running. There is a new vocational training center, a modern university provided by the Dominican Republic, and an improving community-based health care system. An airport expansion, construction of a new settlement with more than 1,280 hurricane and earthquake resistant houses with electricity, potable water, and flush sanitation in every home, and engineering drawings for a new container port are underway. These projects are part of Haiti’s vision for a more prosperous and stable future that harnesses the economic potential of Haiti’s impoverished regions, which the Haitian government put forward, and which donor partners and development experts endorsed.
  4. With more than 60 percent of Haitians reliant on agriculture for income, the United States has expanded agricultural programs, deploying the strategy of Feed the Future, the U.S. government food security initiative. To date we have worked with more than 9,700 farmers, introducing improved seeds, fertilizer and technologies. These efforts have resulted in a 118 percent increase in rice yields, 368 percent increase in corn, 85 percent increase in bean yields, and 21 percent increase in plantain yields. Our goal is to support 100,000 farmers in our three geographical regions of focus.
  5. The U.S. government, through USAID, is funding the services of an experienced management firm to help improve the commercial and operational sustainability of Haiti’s electric utility in Port-au-Prince. In a country where only 12 percent of the population has legal access to electricity, the firm is also seeking to expand services to another 60,000 active customers by next April, which will increase the active customers in Haiti by a third. Since November 2011, the USG has been rehabilitating five electrical substations in Port-au-Prince, ensuring that available power in the system reaches households and businesses. To date, the U.S. government has signed contracts in the energy sector worth $52 million that are in different stages of implementation, half of which focus on the Port-au-Prince area.

The U.S. Government Is Working in Partnership

Dozens of countries, multilateral organizations, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and private sector entities are supporting Haiti. Together, we all pledged more than $12 billion in March 2010 in humanitarian and recovery funding over 10 years — a testament to the wide-spread commitment Haiti’s partners share to its future prosperity. The United States pledged $1.15 billion or about 12 percent of the total funds. The government of Haiti and its partners are striving to ensure each dollar invested yields maximum results and complements, rather than overlaps, with other investments. The U.S. government development strategy can be found at: www.state.gov/s/hsc/. In addition to direct assistance, the United States funds efforts in Haiti through multilateral institutions such as the United Nations, the Inter-American Development Bank, and the World Bank. We are the largest donor in the health and agriculture sectors; the IDB is the largest donor in the education sector, as well as one of the lead donors on water, sanitation and hygiene programs (WASH). Today, because of coordination with the government of Haiti, the IDB and the government of Spain, more Haitians have access to clean water than before the earthquake — yet there is still much more progress that needs to be made.

The U.S. Government is Focused on Productive Infrastructure for Haiti’s Renewal

If you don’t look closely, numbers can be deceiving. The United States used existing funds from 2009 and 2010 and redirected existing programs to jumpstart recovery assistance, rehabilitate the electric grid and upgrade neighborhoods and health clinics before emergency supplemental funds were made available by Congress. Infrastructure projects don’t begin or get completed overnight, and with good reason. So while the United States is on track to disburse all $475 million we committed to housing, energy and ports, disbursements for these types of complex projects are slower. To build a new port, power plant, hospital or housing complex — all of which the United States is in various stages of implementing — in a collaborative, responsible manner requires feasibility studies, consultations and planning with relevant government entities and communities at the local and national level, environmental studies, and plans for staffing and operations and maintenance. For Haiti to become an economically prosperous nation, we need to support sustainable projects. To do so means providing assistance in a deliberate manner.

Disbursements of U.S. Development Assistance to Haiti
$ in thousands for all items

Humanitarian Relief Assistance
Available funding through 03/31/2012: $1,289,024
Obligations: $1,289,024
Disbursements: $1,289,024
Percentage of available funding disbursed: 100%

Recovery and Reconstruction Assistance
Available funding through 03/31/2012: $1,891,743
Of which is the March 2010 New York pledge: $1,170,196
Obligations: $1,129,985
Of which is the March 2010 New York pledge: $649,842
Disbursements: $988,320
Of which is the March 2010 New York pledge: $463,102
Percentage of available funding disbursed: 48%
Of which is the March 2010 New York pledge: 40%

Total
Available funding through 03/31/2012: $3,180,767
Obligations: $2,419,010
Disbursements: $2,277,345
Percentage of available funding disbursed: 72%

You can see how we are investing in Haiti by going to www.foreignassistance.gov and for information on specific contracts you can visit https://www.fpds.gov/fpdsng_cms/.

The U.S. Government is Committed to Transparency and Accountability

The State Department and USAID regularly provide information to the public and consult with Congress. In the last nine months alone, we have held more than 50 briefings for Members of Congress and their staffers, submitted strategies and reports, and have made ourselves available to answer inquiries via letters, emails, phone calls and meetings. And, for U.S. development projects, USAID provides Congress with a progress report every two weeks.

Importantly, we consulted extensively with the government of Haiti and other stakeholders in Haiti in the design of our assistance strategy, to ensure it reflected the priorities of Haiti. As part of this process, we have shared how much funding is available for investments in each sector and the impact the government of Haiti could anticipate from these initiatives. In the North, we have built community kiosks in different townships to share information in French and Creole about the investments the United States is making to receive feedback and remain accountable to local communities. Our commitments are public and tangible, supported by performance benchmarks that allow the people of Haiti and U.S. taxpayers to hold us accountable for our successes and failures.

We have also taken great strides to make the contracting process more transparent and accessible, especially to Haitian-owned companies. Online, any one can readily find the scope of work and information about the projects, excluding company’s business confidential information, to ensure full and open competition for contracts (by avoiding competing companies knowing the costs structures of their competitors).

We are working hard to ensure the United States is the best partner it can be to the government and people of Haiti, while investing the American taxpayers’ resources wisely and sustainably. Our goal is to continually improve our processes and programs, maintain the integrity of our investments, work in a coordinated manner with all stakeholders, and above all else measure our impact by whether the lives of Haitians are improving.

One Year On: Looking Back on Famine and a Smarter Response in the Horn

About six months into my tenure as Director of Food for Peace, in July 2011, I remember calling Nancy Lindborg, the Assistant Administrator of our Bureau, to let her know that famine had been officially declared in Somalia. It was with an air of both sadness and disbelief that I myself absorbed the news that we had actually reached this point. I had left the world of humanitarian aid for development and governance work in the mid-1990s, shortly after one of the most intense periods of my working life, responding to the 1991 Somalia famine. I was in the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) in those years, and we broke records by mounting the largest-ever (at that time) Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) in the office’s history and spending more on a single disaster in a short span of time than the office ever had before. As a member of USAID’s DART in Somalia, I witnessed the crisis firsthand. I traveled with Fred Cuny, a great humanitarian, as he shared his insights into the nature of famine and the challenges of response. As the months unfolded and relief operations ramped up with the support of the U.S. military, names of towns like Belet Huen, Baidoa, Merca and Kismayo all became commonplace, as did the terrible images of starving children and sprawling graveyards.

We learned a lot from that famine response, and looking back I can say that we played it smarter this time around. Recognizing that mortality rates often spike due to outbreaks of preventable diseases, USAID prioritized health and hygiene programs such as vaccination campaigns and providing clean water and hand washing soap before the rainy season, when disease rates are known to spike. Much improved early warning systems gave us a clear picture of both nutritional needs and market prices. Based on this information, we prioritized cash and voucher programs that allowed people to stay in their villages and buy food and other supplies in their local markets. We found that markets did indeed respond to the increase in demand, inflation was kept at bay, and traders brought goods to areas that were off limits or too dangerous for aid workers.

The in-kind food distributions we supported through the United Nations World Food Program WFP) were also smarter. Thanks to the early warnings received from the experts at Famine Early Warning System (FEWS) and Food Security and Nutrition Analysis Unit (FSNAU), our food aid was already pre-positioned in the region. WFP largely set aside general food distributions, which are often chaotic at best and violent at worst. Instead WFP focused on more efficiently reaching those in need by working together with health facilities to provide families with food aid, and if needed, supplementary nutrition. For many years USAID has been providing funds for partners to purchase ready-to-use therapeutic food (RUTF) to help those in crisis, but for the first time ever, Food for Peace provided an RUTF that it helped create. And we now have RUTF in our stockpiles.

While the food security conditions in Somalia have improved, our response this past year reflects our understanding of the fragility of the situation: Along with our partners, we are continuing to provide assistance that saves lives while also protecting and advancing livelihoods.

Last night I attended a celebration in honor of Senator George McGovern’s 90th birthday. He was feted with toasts that acknowledged his extraordinary contributions to feeding hungry children around the world. As an American citizen and public servant, I am proud to be part of the U.S. government effort that stays true to the spirit of Senator McGovern’s vision. In far flung and difficult places, including Somalia, we make a difference and make evident every day the compassion and generosity of the American people.

One Year After Famine: The Need for a Continued Comprehensive Response

On July 20, 2011, I got a call from Dina Esposito, USAID’s Director of the Office of Food for Peace, alerting me of the official declaration of famine in Somalia. That moment, more than a year ago, is still deeply, vividly and painfully with me.

Famines are entirely man-made and have become increasingly rare. In my confirmation hearing, I quoted Amartya Sen’s famous words that famines don’t happen in democracies. So as the worst drought in 60 years gripped the Horn of Africa last year, it was only in Somalia, racked by 20 years of conflict and instability, and with limited access for humanitarian action, that famine was declared. The United States’ commitment and long-term work with Ethiopia, Kenya, and many of their neighbors have reduced the populations’ vulnerability to crises like this one and greatly reduced the need for emergency assistance.

In the humanitarian community, famine is a very specific technical term to describe only those most severe food crises that reach three clear sets of conditions. In famine, more than 30 percent of children are acutely malnourished; at least 20 percent of the population consumes fewer than 2,100 calories of food a day; and the mortality rate exceeds two deaths or four child deaths per 10,000 people on a daily basis.

This translates into unforgivable conditions in any country at any time — yet at this time last year, in parts of southern Somalia, the mortality rate reached as high as six deaths per 10,000 people with one child death estimated to occur every six minutes. These are staggering numbers — and this marked a tragic, unacceptable, unnecessary loss of life.

Because of lessons learned during the last Somalia famine in the early 1990s, we were able to mount a smart and effective response. Our disaster experts from the Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance and Food for Peace used market prices and nutritional data to chart a strategy that focused on highly targeted cash and vouchers, attention to market dynamics. We also kept a focus on health programs, knowing that the leading cause of death for children in famines is preventable disease.

USAID worked around the clock in the region and in Washington to ensure strategies, supplies and partners were in place, including creative approaches to address the limited humanitarian access in many parts of Somalia.

By February, famine conditions had abated, thanks to a massive humanitarian mobilization and decent winter rains. However, the situation remains tenuous in Somalia and underscores that as natural disasters continue to strike, it is imperative to address the need for a stable, legitimate government that can meet the needs of the Somalia people. This is a priority of the U.S. government and our international partners.

Learn more about our response in the Horn of Africa and our Productive Safety Net Program.

Humanitarian Aid in a Changing World

Have you ever wondered how the international humanitarian response system actually works in practice? How is life-saving assistance provided to people caught up in conflicts, natural disasters and other crises when the capacity of their governments to respond is outstripped?  How many agencies are on standby? How much does it cost to respond to some of the most difficult and devastating emergencies on the planet? And is the system doing a good job? For the first time, there is one report that provides answers to all of these questions.

With funding from USAID, the Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance (ALNAP) interviewed hundreds of aid workers, donors and aid recipients. The information  —  statistics on funding flows, needs versus spending and lives affected — enables us to get an authentic snapshot of the vast, shifting mass of agencies, donors, governments and affected populations that are part of the humanitarian community. The new State of the Humanitarian System report shows us how well the system is performing so that all agencies can be more accountable and learn from their experiences.

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