Better systems to address chronic crises

Phon Phalep, a rice and maize farmer along the Thai-Cambodian border, calls for the local malaria volunteer in his village to conduct a test. Photo by: Gates Foundation / CC BY-NC-ND

The World Bank recently projected a moderate climb in GDP growth in 2014 for Namibia, now considered an upper middle-income country. At the same time, the Namibian government declared a national emergency in response to the growing number of malnutrition-related child deaths in the drought-ridden north.

Mixed signals are not unusual in middle-income countries. On one hand, income derived from the export of natural resources generates encouraging statistics and reassures donors to pack up and focus on low-income countries and fragile states. On the other hand,  populations at risk remain as vulnerable as they ever were.

This is particularly true of populations on the periphery, those linguistically, culturally and economically isolated from groups that dominate the capitals, such as the Himba in Namibia or the Turkana or Somalis in northern Kenya (Kenya is set to become a middle-income nation sometime this year); but is also true of those just geographically distant from the wealth and services concentrated around major cities.        

These communities are more likely to be malnourished, and vulnerable to natural hazards such as drought and floods, as well as to be sick from malaria, drop out of school, and become climate migrants that make up a new urban poor. Increasingly, their poverty is being exacerbated by consecutive droughts. At certain tipping points, governments and international humanitarian agencies step in to deliver food, fix boreholes and help people through the worst of a dry season. However, the exit — if it happens at all — is more likely to be driven by lack of funds and fatigue rather than any sense of resolution.

In 2013–2014, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and the Namibian Red Cross ran an emergency operation for drought-affected populations in the country’s northern region. The evaluation of the operation presented on August 12 first congratulates IFRC for improving the nutrition of children under five through food and cash assistance, and then cautions that these improvements are likely to relapse now that assistance has come to an end. So should the emergency operation continue? For how long? Who will pay for it? What is it really going to take to support communities living through recurrent droughts to build resilient livelihoods again?  

The 2016 World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul can help tackle these complex questions, not by dealing with them on a case-by-case basis, but by proposing a system that better enables governments, donors, development and humanitarian organizations to collaborate on the solutions. This is crucial, as many many of the limitations we experience as external actors are rooted in poor application and poor appreciation of ownership, rather than a lack of learning or shortage of bright ideas.

One of the great successes of aid work in recent years has been curbing the prevalence of HIV, tuberculosis and malaria, and a significant component of that was that the application was well managed through the decentralized Country Coordinating Mechanisms. CCMs ensured national ownership, national accountability and forced alignment among implementing agencies.

However, in the complex issue of building resilience and emergency response, we lack that discipline and continue to dabble in short, disconnected interventions that make sense primarily through the tunnel vision of the implementing agency, isolated from national ownership and national accountability mechanisms.

For chronic crises, we should learn from the fight against HIV, tuberculosis and malaria, and set up government-led CCMs on resilience to disasters that compel all agencies to align behind a coherent, nationally owned plan, and be accountable for the aspects they are charged to implement.    

This is especially true for slow onset disasters and chronic crises in middle-income countries, where the conditions are stable enough to plan long-term, governments can take a rightful lead, and the little aid money remaining needs to be used for maximum, sustainable effect.

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About the author

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    Alexander Matheou

    Alexander Matheou is the executive director of international for the British Red Cross. He has worked in the humanitarian sector for 20 years and has experience of working in the Middle East, South Asia, the former Soviet Union and Africa. His major areas of thematic experience include disaster management, risk reduction, good donorship practices, and aid effectiveness.