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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 Later: Reflections on the Humanitarian Response in the Horn

Communities in the Horn of Africa are enduring their second summer of poor rains, failed crops, and withering livestock. In a region where the majority of the population makes under $2 a day in the best of times, this emergency has stretched to the breaking point many families’ ability to put food on the table.

One year ago, the extent of this environmental crisis was made clear when the United Nations declared a famine in Somalia—the first to strike the region in nearly 30 years. In Djibouti, Ethiopia, and Kenya, the longterm investments in development paid off, preventing their slide into famine.

Thanks to better seeds and other technologies provided through USAID rural finance assistance, more than 867,000 households have seen their income grow. Photo credit: Mariantonietta Peru/USAID

But relief efforts weren’t easy. The drought severely affected more than 13 million people—more than the populations of New York City and Los Angeles combined—requiring a vast
humanitarian response that could reach the remote, isolated, and often nomadic populations that had the greatest need. In Somalia, conflict and violence limited the reach of humanitarian assistance, and those hardest-hit by the drought were often the hardest to get to.

A year later, despite the unflagging drought, conditions have improved across the Horn, thanks in part to the international community’s quick and aggressive response. USAID’s relief efforts in the Horn were designed to attack the emergency from two sides. Our work aims not only to save lives, but also to enable communities to recover faster and better withstand the next shock. Learning from previous droughts and famines, we prioritized:

  • Food aid—to stop the hunger
  • Health, nutrition, water, hygiene, and sanitation services—to combat disease, which kills more people in emergencies than a lack of food 
  • Support for livelihoods–to enable families to access food where markets were functioning

Since 2011, USAID has provided more than $1 billion in humanitarian assistance to the Horn, targeting more than 4.5 million people.

However, the gains made over the past year are fragile. More than 9 million people in Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia still require humanitarian assistance, and the situation could worsen over the next few months. The core vulnerabilities of drought, conflict, poor governance, and chronic poverty continue to threaten the future of millions. Within USAID, we’re working hard to tackle these chronic threats and continue to be flexible in our response. The future will continue to present challenges, but USAID is committed to working with our partners to hold onto the gains we’ve all worked so hard to achieve.

The one-year anniversary of the famine declaration in Somalia is a somber reminder of the continuing crisis and an opportunity to reflect on the need for communities to come together to help those in need.

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.

Chronic Crisis in the Sahel Calls for a New Approach

Originally published in the Huffington Post.

It is the lean season in the Sahel, a spine of arid and dry lands that runs from Senegal to Chad in western Africa, and once again we are seeing the devastating images of children gaunt with hunger. This is a region that faces high childhood malnutrition and underdevelopment even under the best of circumstances so one poor harvest can push millions of the most vulnerable into severe risk. In the aftermath of poor rains, and with food prices stubbornly stuck on high since the food crisis of 2008, some 18.7 million people across eight affected countries in the Sahel are at risk of food insecurity this year alone. At least 8 million people are already in need of emergency assistance.

At USAID, we are determined to get ahead of these kinds of chronic crises. We know that millions of Africans living in the dry lands of the Horn and Sahel regions need new solutions. Last year, the worst drought in 60 years ravaged the Horn of Africa, driving 13.3 million people into crisis. And this summer, families in the Sahel are feeling the peril of depleting food supplies, high food prices, and rising malnutrition.

We can’t prevent what appears to be increasing cycles of drought, but we can and are working to create better solutions and build greater resilience among the most vulnerable.

Every crisis is complex, and the Sahel is no exception. A regional drought has been overlaid with instability stemming from the coup in Mali and conflict in the northern part of that country where armed militant groups have forced the suspension of critical relief operations. More than 184,000 refugees have fled to communities in neighboring countries that are already deeply stressed from drought. Though still functioning, local and regional markets have been disrupted, driving food prices even higher. And as of mid-June, swarms of locusts from southern Algeria and Libya had arrived in northern Mali and Niger; now expected to move southward, these infestations could result in crop destruction exacerbating an already worsening situation.

In these cases of chronic crisis, recurring shocks erase development gains and set local populations back into urgent need over and over again. With many in the Sahel still struggling to recover from the region’s last food crisis in 2010, they now face a new crisis of food access. Borrowing money to buy food or the seeds to plant this rainy season has the farmers of Chad, Niger, Burkina Faso, and their neighbors incurring amounts of debt that are crippling, and a vicious cycle of suffering persists.

We cannot and should not accept this course as inevitable. Through smarter programming and a coordinated response, we can help make these recurring shocks less devastating. To this end and so that our relief work enables greater growth, we are committed to doing business differently in four key ways:

1. Early action in response to early warning: Last fall, thanks to early warning systems, we saw signs of the tough lean season ahead for the Sahel. USAID began committing food commodities as early as November and, in February, I traveled to Niger and Burkina Faso to assess the worsening situation and identify programs that work firsthand. As of July 1, 2012, more than 74,000 metric tons of food has arrived in the region out of a total of approximately 107,000 metric tons purchased, the rest of which will arrive in the next 30 to 45 days. This food will reach approximately 3.2 million people. The U.S. commitment to a strong humanitarian response and helping those in need remains unwavering.

2. A smarter, targeted and market-sensitive humanitarian response: We are determined to ensure our assistance is building resilience even as we save lives. Because food markets are still functioning in the Sahel — albeit at higher than normal prices — our cash-based programs allow vulnerable families and communities to access locally available food and basic goods in addition to our in-kind food aid. Through food vouchers, cash transfers, and temporary work opportunities, we support local markets and develop land reclamation and sustainable agriculture practices even while responding to acute needs now. In addition to including new food products and efforts to strengthen nutrition, our emergency programs are helping families keep livestock healthy and alive, as cows, sheep and goats are tantamount to savings accounts for many pastoralist families. And we are focused especially on women, as we know they are key to their families’ futures and to the health of their children.

3. More effectively connecting our relief and development programs: As we did in the Horn of Africa, we are bringing our relief and development teams together to identify ways to layer, integrate, and sequence programs with the goal of creating long term resilience. Later this month, I will return to the region to join colleagues in Dakar, Senegal who are leading our Sahel Joint Planning Cell (JPC), a comprehensive effort to connect our range of relief and development work in the field and in Washington to apply our humanitarian resources for the greatest good. Moreover, the JPC is working in lockstep with Feed the Future, President Obama’s landmark initiative to increase food security by battling the root causes of poverty and undernutrition through increased investments in agriculture-led economic growth.

4. Working in partnership with the international community to support effective country-led plans: At a recent high-level meeting with the EU Commission in Brussels, along with other donor governments, U.N. agencies, regional institutions, and humanitarian and development aid organizations, we reaffirmed our commitment to helping communities in the Sahel improve their ability to withstand future emergencies by forming the Global Alliance for Resilience Initiative-Sahel (AGIR-Sahel). This new partnership is linked to the Global Alliance for Action for Drought Resilience and Growth stood up together with international partners and African leaders in Nairobi this April with a focus on new country frameworks and mutual accountability.

The steps we are taking now are a direct result of the lessons we learned last year through our successful response to crisis in the Horn: that all tools must be applied in ways that are context-specific and cause no harm; that our impact multiplies tenfold when we work in close coordination with the international community and local leadership; and that to make the greatest difference, even during acute crisis, major donors from the humanitarian and development sectors must come together to identify causes of vulnerability to build resilience going forward.

Resilience programming can make a difference in the Sahel just as it has in the Horn. I have seen the effects firsthand in Burkina Faso, where USAID programs that have diversified livelihoods, introduced new seeds and highly nutritious crops, improved nutrition and increased access to water and irrigation have helped women farmers stand strong and feed their children even amidst drought.

With a total Fiscal Year 2012 commitment of more than $321.5 million in U.S. humanitarian assistance for drought-affected and conflict-displaced communities in the Sahel, we must use these resources in ways that both alleviate the dire situation at hand and lay the foundation for longstanding gains. Our mission to achieve real sustainable development — and millions of livelihoods — depends on it.

Active Dialogue with Civil Society for More Productive Development Partnerships

In 1997, I attended an event held by the Society for International Development (SID) to discuss the emerging concept of “civil society.” A panel of scholars and practitioners discussed key issues, including the 72 definitions for civil society that one panelist tried to pare down.

Flash forward to last week, when I had the honor to attend Secretary Clinton’s Global Town Hall, part of the 2012 Summit for the Strategic Dialogue with Civil Society. The Strategic Dialogue was launched last year to elevate U.S. engagement with partners beyond foreign governments and to underscore the US Government’s commitment to supporting and protecting civil society around the world.  The Strategic Dialogue enables civil society to formally engage U.S. policymakers on policy matters – and we need their perspective.

In the 15 years since the SID event, we have witnessed the powerful role of civil society in far corners of the world calling for freedom, demanding dignity, and fighting corruption.  New communication technologies have reduced barriers to networking. Civil society organizations can tell their stories in unprecedented ways; activists can make their case beyond borders and be heard in new ways.  But with this new power has come new threats.  The same technologies that activists use to spread their messages have been used to target them for harassment, arrest, and worse.  As citizens find new ways to organize, assemble, and express themselves, autocratic governments have found new ways to restrict their space and suppress information.

One key way oppressive governments try to control civil society is by attempting to restrict the registration or foreign funding of non-governmental organizations (NGOs).  For more than 20 years, USAID has supported programs to improve the legal environment for NGOs to operate and expand space for civil society worldwide.  In the last four years alone, through our partnership with the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ICNL), USAID has supported and defended space for civil society in some  40 countries.

In Tunisia, for example, USAID assistance to ICNL enabled the first-ever meeting of civil society leaders and legislators to work toward replacing the existing, restrictive law governing associations with a new legal framework.   The new law passed as a result of this meeting is now considered a best practice for a region undergoing tectonic shifts. Now, USAID programs are allowing Tunisian civil society actors to share their experience with new voices in Libya working to create safe legal space for activism in a country where the brutal regime of Muammar Qaddafi suppressed civil society for more than 40 years.

The Arab Spring underscored that true stability requires legitimate, inclusive governance , with accountable state-society relationships. USAID supports development of the three-legged stool that Secretary Clinton talked about, where government, civil society, and the private sector all flourish and create stability for a prosperous country.

Amid the rich discussion at last week’s Town Hall, I was particularly struck by one comment made by a Moroccan civil society leader, who remarked that “90 percent of US assistance goes to only 10 percent of the NGOs.”

All too often, donors, including USAID, have partnered primarily with a small number of elite, capital city-based NGOs and missed the rich dialogue that comes with working with smaller, regionally-based organizations.  As part of the larger USAID Forward reform effort, we’re working to change those percentages. USAID’s Implementation and Procurement Reform will help streamline our regulations to make it easier for us to partner directly with a wider range of civil society organizations, amplify additional voices marginalized for too long, and lend much-needed support to the grassroots.

Through efforts like these—to reach and support a wider array of actors and expand the space where civil society can operate—USAID is playing an instrumental role in advancing active dialogue with civil society, so essential to any sustainable development effort and a vital piece of our country partnerships that ensure success.

USAID and OIC: Working Together to Save Lives

Originally posted to the White House Blog.

The United States has always been committed to providing assistance to those around the world in the midst of crisis. Last year alone, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) dispatched aid in the aftermath of 67 disasters in 54 countries, saving countless lives and bringing much needed relief to millions who lost loved ones, homes, and livelihoods. From the tragic earthquake and tsunami in Japan to the most severe drought in 60 years in the Horn of Africa, USAID is there and making a difference on behalf of the American people every day.

But we never do it alone. Working in support of the host nation’s relief efforts, our partners include American businesses, other donor nations, local aid organizations, as well as international and non-governmental organizations. Our partnerships allow us to maximize our assistance, even as international crises grow more frequent and more complex.

Today at the White House, the United States marked a significant partnership milestone. USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah and Professor Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, Secretary-General of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), signed a Memorandum of Understanding that further strengthens our cooperation on humanitarian issues and disaster response.

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My 2012 Annual Letter: Elevating Development within America’s Foreign Policy

About a year ago, I decided to write an annual letter to share some of the work our Agency does saving lives and improving human welfare around the world. I also wanted to describe some of the priorities we’ve set and tough choices we’ve made in order to deliver meaningful results for and on behalf of the American people.

Now, I am pleased to share our 2012 Annual Letter, which we issued last week.  This letter highlights the work we’ve done over the last year to seize pivotal opportunities in development and achieve generational legacies of success.

From helping communities build resilience before disasters strike to helping countries improve child survival so they can reap what’s known as a demographic dividend, USAID is working hard to answer President Obama and Secretary Clinton’s call to elevate global development.

We’re also stepping out of our comfort zone, embracing challenging roles and responding quickly to world events. As the Arab Spring took hold in North Africa and Middle East, we helped empower citizens as they embraced new freedoms and participated actively in the political process for the first time. And we’re partnering much more closely with the private sector to expand opportunities for investment in the developing world.

Ultimately, this letter describes our efforts to help countries build the capacity to direct their own development, as we work together to shape a brighter future.

I hope you enjoy reading it, and please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Discussing the Crisis in Sudan and South Sudan with the Senate and George Clooney

Yesterday I had the opportunity to testify on the rising humanitarian crises in Sudan and South Sudan before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.   It’s been just eight months since we celebrated the peaceful separation of South Sudan from Sudan, marking a turning point for a people who have endured war for the greater part of half a century.   Yet, there are increasing challenges facing these two nations that have resulted in violence and conflict, making the prospect of a peaceful path forward for these two new nations incredibly fragile.

The crushing poverty, underdevelopment, and intercommunal fighting in South Sudan, as well as the continued conflict in Southern Kordofan, Blue Nile, Abyei, and Jonglei, have left the people in these regions with uncertain futures and requiring a wide range of assistance to meet their needs.  I was honored to speak alongside Special Envoy to Sudan, Ambassador Princeton Lyman, who also emphasized that the United States’ goal is to prevent this humanitarian situation from worsening any further.  But this rising crisis needs public attention. I’m thankful to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for their continued thoughtful attention to this issue and for inviting actor George Clooney and activist John Prendergast, who had just returned from the region, to also testify.  Their presence and personal reflection undoubtedly heightened public interest in this hearing, which will hopefully result in increased support for the people of Sudan and South Sudan.

I encourage you to read my testimony and send me your thoughts in the comments below or via Twitter @NancyLindborg.

An Alliance for Global Development

Originally posted on the White House Blog

When Prime Minister Cameron meets President Obama in Washington today it will have been ten months since our two countries signed a new Partnership for Global Development. The partnership outlines specific areas where we are focusing our collective efforts, reaffirming our commitment to saving lives and improving human welfare around the world.

If you needed proof of how much more we can achieve by working together than acting alone, our response to the food crisis in the Horn of Africa demonstrates the transformative impact of our partnership.

Over the last ten months, USAID and the UK’s Department for International Development’s (DFID) leadership and decisive action in the region has helped avert an even larger catastrophe. As heads of our nations’ respective development agencies, we have both visited the Horn of Africa and seen for ourselves the scale of the crisis, which placed more than 13.3 million people in need of emergency assistance. That is roughly the combined population of London and Washington. (Watch this video of Rajiv Shah and Dr. Jill Biden’s visit to the Horn of Africa last year)

While the drought was regional, the crisis only led to famine in southern Somalia, where a governance failure and lack of access obstructed international relief efforts. This underscores the importance of the recent London Conference on Somalia hosted by Prime Minister Cameron that brought together over 50 countries and international organizations to consider how best to support Somalia not only on development but on issues like piracy, the political process and security. DFID led a parallel set of discussions on preventing future humanitarian crises.

Thanks to the generosity of the British and American people, our nations led a significant humanitarian response that helped save hundreds of thousands of lives in Somalia alone, and reached millions of people across the region with food, health care, and water and sanitation services.

But we must do more than provide relief. We must help countries build resilience, so they are prepared for disasters before they hit. USAID’s Famine Early Warning System provided some of the first alerts of the impending crisis, giving us time to pre-position food and health supplies in advance. And many of our programs on the ground have allowed families and smallholder farmers to weather the crisis.

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Responding Early and Building Resilience in the Sahel

Originally posted at Huffington Post.

In the village of Tougouri, in Burkina Faso, I stood with the four women squinting in the sun. They each held a digging tool. Between them, they had 31 children and no husbands. Safieta, wearing a bright yellow scarf, noted the rains were bad last year. No, she said, none of them were able to harvest much of the maize they had planted during the rainy season. I had just driven from Niger, through hours of flat and dusty land, and was in Tougouri to visit communities that were once again experiencing drought.

In the arid regions of East and West Africa, we are seeing droughts that used to come every ten years, now coming nearly every other year. A year after the worst drought in 60 years sent 13.3 million people in the Horn of Africa into crisis, we are now facing a rising threat of crisis in the Sahel — an arid belt that stretches from Senegal through Niger and Burkina Faso to Chad.

When families are living on the edge of survival, the slightest shock can send them into crisis. For many women throughout the Sahel, as in the Horn of Africa, who are eking out a living on small farms or raising livestock, a failed rain means no food for their children. Years of repeated drought means they can’t put away any reserves. Today, rising food prices, another failed rain, and conflict in Mali and Libya, means that between seven and ten million people are at risk of sliding into crisis as we enter the lean season of the months ahead.

I have spent the last year helping to lead the United States’ response to the Horn of Africa drought. We began prepositioning stocks of food in the region as early as Sept 2010 and through the crisis we focused on expanding resilience programs that help rebuild assets, improved water infrastructure and increased the ability of families to buy food in the markets through voucher programs.

Through our early actions, we were able to reach 4.6 million of the most vulnerable people, primarily women and children, with life-saving food. We know that it is critical to reach children in those first 1,000 days with the right nutritional food when their brains and bodies are developing. We also helped an estimated 3.9 million people stay healthy with improved access to water, sanitation and critical medical help, especially vaccinations so crucial for protecting children under five from infectious diseases that easily kill a child already weak from hunger.

As we focus on the rising crisis in the Sahel, we are committed to responding immediately and acting on the most important lessons learned from the Horn response. That is why last week I announced $33 million in humanitarian relief, bringing up the total U.S. Government commitment to $270 million in 2011 and 2012.

We know we can’t stop droughts from happening, but we can and do commit ourselves to early action when we have early warning signs, with a focus on highly targeted programs that build resilience even as we meet urgent needs.

Back in the fields of Burkina Faso, Safieta proudly took me along the edge of her three plots filled with bright green onion sprouts. Seven years ago, USAID began a program in partnership with CRS to increase the resilience of villagers dependent upon rain fed crops. Two years ago, the program ended. Yet, Safieta and her fellow farmers are continuing to thrive on the proceeds of their dry season market gardens. “We chose onions,” she noted, “because if the water pump fails for a few days, they are strong enough to survive.” Safieta is sending her children to school and still putting away a little for the unpredictable needs, she said. “I am resilient now,” she laughed, “just like the onions.”

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