Tackling drought with emergency aid is not the answer

Brad Sagara

Research and Learning Manager at Mercy Corps 

Author Note

This reporting is part of a special project that explores the impact of climate change on the food security and livelihoods of small-scale farmers in Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal and Zimbabwe

For those forced to live through them, droughts are less an unusual event than a way of life that constantly tests your resilience and resourcefulness.

To be a farmer, or make a living from livestock in Ethiopia, where my organisation, Mercy Corps, has been working for many years, you need to be innovative in the face of ever-changing weather patterns. 

And yet the 2015 El Niño drought cycle – the worst in 50 years by some measures – tested even this population. One seasoned pastoralist reported recently to our staff that he’d “never seen anything like this drought”.

Though it has driven an estimated 10 million people into food insecurity, the drought was not particularly surprising – weather-related crises have increased in frequency in this part of the world over the last decade. 

Facing these extreme climate patterns, many development organisations have recognised what former USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah stated: that “segregated humanitarian support activities and development activities” no longer work in these contexts. 

Time for a change

What is needed are carefully sequenced, layered, and integrated interventions that work together to build household and community capacity to learn, cope, adapt, and transform in the face of shocks and stresses, rather than a reliance on costly direct emergency assistance after the fact. 

To this end, instead of the traditional humanitarian assistance method of direct delivery of resources like food, medicine, or other equipment, Mercy Corps has adopted a new approach designed with resilience as a central feature. Our aim is to ensure that wellbeing like food security, economic status, and health are maintained or improved despite recurrent shocks.

RELATED: How much worse are African droughts because of man-made climate change?

Putting this into practice requires longer-term strategies that take into account the many factors that influence resilience and vulnerability at different levels of society – from household to community to region.

One example of our resilience-building is the USAID-funded Pastoralist Areas Resilience Improvement through Market Expansion project in Ethiopia, which relies largely on strengthening the market systems in which households participate. The PRIME programme does this in part through strategic subsidies aimed at supporting individuals and local businesses to expand their livelihood options – including support to develop and adopt new technologies, skills training, and improved access to natural resources. 

Simultaneously, linkages are created between producers and consumers, potential employers and employees, suppliers and retailers, and communities and government institutions. By then providing support through ongoing research, demonstration, and training, these individuals and communities are given the help they need to access the global market and to sustain their gains. 

Promising insights

This kind of resilience-focused programming sounds like a good idea – but does it actually work? Until recently, little evidence existed to address this question. But new Mercy Corps research offers some promising observations about the effectiveness of a resilience approach.

While such work has been evaluated before, no one to our knowledge has rigorously evaluated a programme‘s impact in real time in the context of a major shock. By conducting this study during a major drought cycle, we were able to leverage a rare opportunity. 

Since PRIME began in 2012, we were already well established in the drought-affected regions. The unique circumstances in Ethiopia allowed us to match households targeted by the PRIME project with a statistically similar group of other households not targeted by PRIME – giving us insight into whether this major investment in drought resilience actually worked as intended.

The study showed that interventions enabled families to maintain their wellbeing in the face of the worst drought in decades. Specifically, these households were significantly more likely to be able to keep their families nourished, had greater assets and less vulnerability to poverty, and maintained healthier livestock and fewer animal deaths. The bottom line: These communities were better able to take care of themselves and less likely to require direct emergency assistance in the form of food aid or otherwise.

Based on our findings, we advocate that donors increase investments that strengthen resilience in contexts experiencing recurrent crises. Projects need to have long timelines that allow for cultivation of functioning economic, social, and ecological systems by building linkages and addressing barriers. Donors should expand the amount of multi-year, flexible funding that enables programmes to pursue long-term development goals while being responsive to meeting emergency needs.

A spectrum

Moreover, resilience-building need not come at the cost of timely emergency response (and vice-versa). Emergency interventions should be designed and coordinated to not simply postpone suffering to the next shock, but to help reduce it all together. In practice, strategies will vary by context, but fundamentally this requires more robust coordination spanning the relief to development continuum, recognising that resilience is not a distinct achievement on the way from relief to development, but permeates the entire spectrum. 

Studies like this one are vital to creating the body of evidence needed to support this push. Donors and implementing agencies are under increasing pressure to demonstrate not only the effectiveness of resilience-focused projects, but also the return on investment for these types of interventions. Preliminary studies suggest that the comparatively high up-front costs of building resilience are significantly offset by the benefits. These studies are a good start, but more research is needed to refine our knowledge of which programming tools and interventions are the most effective and provide the greatest value for money. 

If the aid community wants to get serious about addressing these issues and creating more demand for this kind of funding, we will need more studies across contexts: What works in the Horn of Africa may be very different from what works in an urban centre in Southeast Asia. At Mercy Corps, this study has prompted us to redouble our commitment to a resilience approach, and to hone our resilience research agenda to take on the critical questions of what works and at what cost. 

As we face a looming crisis in the Horn of Africa – one eerily reminiscent of the 2011 drought emergency there – we should not lose sight of what this research tells us: Resilience matters, and it works.

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