Over the last month, we have watched communities along the New York and New Jersey coastline begin to rebuild from the devastating impact of Hurricane Sandy. It is a reminder that we are all vulnerable to natural disasters that can happen at any time. How communities survive and recover from these shocks depends very much on their resilience – their ability to cope and their systems for preparing, responding and rebuilding. In the United States, these systems are already in place and, for the most part, function well. This is not the case in many low-income countries.
Year after year, we see poor communities in developing countries deal with the effects of floods and droughts. Many of these weather-related problems are predictable, and so is the recurring “hunger season”—the period before the main harvest is ready—in parts of sub-Saharan Africa. All of these cause a great deal of suffering, including severe malnutrition which threatens the lives of the most vulnerable. In fragile states, vulnerability to shocks is even higher. Each year, humanitarian agencies mobilize relief efforts to save lives. Once the crisis is over, we go back to business as usual.
It shouldn’t be this way. People in the affected communities know all too well that every year the rainy season or monsoon cuts off their contact with nearby towns, or that every year the dry season leaves many families without access to enough food. With the right support, countries and local communities can build systems and develop responses that help people get through these difficult seasons. This way, they are not stuck in the powerless position of hoping, year after year, that emergency assistance will arrive in time.
In 2007 and 2008, many millions of poor people suffered because of a dramatic rise in global food prices, particularly for basic grains such as rice and wheat. They had no control over the causes of the price hikes, and they had very few coping mechanisms. Poor families spend a large percentage of their income on food, so when prices soared, they had to cut back on more nutritious foods, eat fewer meals, and go without other basic needs such as health care. The World Bank estimated that the food price crisis pushed more than 100 million people deeper into poverty.
The crisis served as a wake-up call — it risked reversing the tremendous progress the world had made in reducing extreme poverty and hunger. In fact, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), progress against hunger stalled due to high and volatile food prices.
As a result, there has been a greater focus on the concept of resilience since 2008. It is very important that USAID now has its first policy and program guidance (PDF) on building resilience. Through Feed the Future and Food for Peace, USAID has already acted on important components of such an undertaking, with the focus on reducing malnutrition in the 1,000 days between pregnancy and age 2 and helping smallholder farmers improve their livelihoods and diversify diets in their families and communities. Social safety nets are also essential. With dramatic weather events and food price volatility only likely to continue and intensify due to climate change, the need to build resilience has never been greater.