Early warning, delayed response?

Published: 3 June 2011 16:00 CET

By Alasan Senghore, Director of Africa zone office, IFRC

Is providing food during a drought always the right course of action? It’s a familiar question to humanitarians the world over, and there’s no clear answer. But as the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement, we have reviewed our recent work in Ethiopia and Kenya and this is influencing the thinking on our future approach.

Between 2008 and 2010, we launched four international appeals to respond to drought and food insecurity in the Horn of Africa. Some of our work was well funded and well managed. In other cases, logistical challenges meant our response was slow, and poor donor support meant we were limited in what we could achieve.

An underpinning theme in our review is the recognition that droughts are natural and recurring, so sudden, large-scale relief operations are often less relevant than addressing the long-term challenge of supporting communities to become more resilient to the cycles of drought.

Much of our work now focuses on disaster preparedness. Time and time again, studies have proved the benefit – in lives saved and the cost of response and recovery – of limiting the effects of a disaster when compared with responding to it.

Of course, the Red Cross Red Crescent will continue to be there for people during times of crisis, but this review underlines the importance of also being there before it happens. The strength of our volunteer network means we have a presence in most communities. Building the capacities of those communities to cope with drought, we believe, is the right way minimise the humanitarian consequences of it.

A further key learning objective for us is in relation to technology and trends. There are many sophisticated systems today that predict cycles of drought and provide early warnings. We too must become more innovative and take advantage of the intelligence this can bring to our work.

In addition to predicting when and how a drought might impact a community, we must look at how we can help ensure livelihoods are protected, so that during a crisis – and when it eases – the time to recovery is shortened. Instead of providing food, we should focus on protecting livestock, maintaining community health and being innovative with cash responses.

In our collective Red Cross Red Crescent minds, this review has crystallized the importance of advocating for investment in community resilience, even when weather conditions look good, to provide long-term solutions.

We will always be there when disaster strikes, but we hope that learning from the past and implementing the lessons learnt from this review will, over time, reduce the number of people who need our help.

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