The most deafening silence I know is to be in a room full of children who don't cry. They don't play and they certainly don't laugh. I was in a remote clinic in Chad and the children were beyond hunger.
The only consolation to be found in that joyless cell was the knowledge that these infants would survive. It was less encouraging to contemplate what kind of lives they could expect to lead.
In the two years that I have been European Commissioner for International Cooperation, Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Response, my work has taken me to various places around the world where hunger is a daily struggle for families and for communities – from Sudan to Somalia, from Southeast Asia to Niger. I recently came back from the Sahel region of Africa in where around 15 million people are at the risk of hunger due to poor harvest, drought and high food prices, lack of sustainable investment in smallholder agriculture, lack of social safety nets and poverty reduction measures. The most vulnerable are the more than one million children affected by a looming hunger crisis. The impact of under-nutrition is particularly tragic on very young children, often under two years of age. Malnutrition or related diseases kill 300 000 children there annually, even in a 'non-crisis year'. But hunger, and especially the devastating undernutrition of children, is not a tsunami or an earthquake: it is a predictable emergency. And it is not only linked to a lack of food: it is for instance also linked to lack of appropriate health care and water and sanitation, to inappropriate infant and child feeding practices. This means that undernutrition can only be successfully tackled through a multi-sector approach and from both the humanitarian and development angles. In brief, we have to be smarter in solving the problem – and do so quickly.
Hunger and malnutrition have increased in the world. More than a billion people are considered to be short of food; that's one in seven globally. Of these, approximately a hundred million are living in crises which pose an immediate threat to life. Children make up a significant proportion of these people. More than one child death in ten is due to acute malnutrition. It is tragic that in our times of unprecedented technological and social advancement malnutrition kills thousands of children and millions of people go to bed hungry. Hunger stunts babies' and young children's' physical and cognitive development but it also impedes countries' economic development, perpetuating a cycle of more hunger, more poverty and more instability. To solve this problem is one of the most important tasks we face today.
With the crisis in the Horn of Africa expected to last until the middle of this year and the new emergency in the Sahel we need smarter short-term responses and long- term solutions to make sure that an inevitable cycle of drought does not lead to hunger and famine. If you look for an adequate and intelligent response you need to understand what you are up against, what are the underlying reasons for recurring hunger crises along the 10th parallel in Africa.
While the situation is still far from stable in the Horn of Africa we are facing a major emergency in the Sahel this year. There, erratic rains have resulted in a very poor harvest with an estimated shortfall of more than 2.6 million tons in food production, especially in Niger, Chad and Mauritania. The five Sahel states most affected have already declared emergencies and called for international assistance. Niger was first in October 2011, followed by Mauritania, Mali and Burkina Faso in November. Chad requested international community assistance on 21 December.
What is particularly worrying is how close this new crisis has followed the last one in 2010. The Sahel is in the front line of climate change. The resilience of the most vulnerable households – around one in every five – is at near-zero. They have had no time to rebuild reserves and assets and in many case are still repaying debts incurred to buy food during the previous crisis.
And with rapidly rising food prices due to drought in one of the poorest regions of the world a rising percentage of the most vulnerable is being locked out of the market for food.
Most of these countries are also plagued with political fragility, internal and cross-border conflicts and organised crime. This is a major concern. The activities of terrorist groups like Al Qaida and Boko Haram are hindering the delivery of humanitarian aid. There is a high risk of attacks and kidnappings of aid workers. We need to do everything possible to protect the humanitarian space and the lives of aid workers while at the same time continuing to try and reach those in need.
So how do we respond? Since the 2005 and 2010 crises in the Sahel we know that we need to improve effectiveness of early warning systems to ensure timely response and appropriate targeting. Secondly, coordination mechanisms between humanitarian and development actors are crucial to save lives and at the same time ensure long-term disaster prevention and resilience. Based on these experiences and the acknowledgement that there is need to focus on nutrition intervention, ECHO developed a comprehensive Sahel Strategy to combine short and long term aid instruments to achieve a sustainable reduction in malnutrition rates. Targeted especially on children under five and pregnant and breastfeeding women, ECHO's approach mixes improved understanding and knowledge of the causes of malnutrition with supporting innovative ways to treat malnutrition and to advocate for the permanent inclusion of food and nutrition security as priority actions for Sahel governments. Over 225 million Euros have been spent on this strategy since 2005. The knowledge and experience gained has prepared Commission services to respond quickly and adequately to new crises such as the one affecting the Sahel now. So far the Commission has responded to it with more than €123m. Humanitarian and development partners are working jointly to finalise an action plan to support short and medium- term measures to assist food and nutrition insecure populations in the region. This joint initiative will allow making the transition from relief to recovery/rehabilitation and development smoother.
We need to act early and fast but we also need to be smart, delivering aid which is in time, tightly targeted on those in most need, appropriate in design, adequate in scale, closely monitored and as cost-effective as possible. This smart aid comes in many guises; cash transfers to the neediest households to enable them to buy food locally, the pre-positioning of essential foods and nutrition products and improving access to health services for the early diagnosis of malnutrition. Treating children before they fall into the severe malnutrition category saves lives and money.
I also discussed the governments' action plans with the Heads of States of Niger and Chad and their relevant ministers during my visit to Niger and Chad in January. I am convinced that both governments are taking action within their means to do what they can to help their populations faced with the crisis. And they are also well aware of the need to invest much more in building resilience and developing long-term sustainable food production and to find permanent solutions to improve food security, including tackling demographic growth. The EU is committed to working with them to strengthen their capacity to respond to crises.
Humanitarian aid can only help in the short-term response to saving lives. It is important that there is an increase in targeted and adequate long-term development assistance to help address issues causing the structural food insecurity and chronic malnutrition affecting the region. Agricultural productivity is too low with 70 to 80% of the population who live in rural areas dependent on subsistence rain-fed agriculture. We need to increase government investment in small-scale food production and develop pro-poor social protection programmes for the most vulnerable populations.
Most donors understand that the link between investing in preparedness and responding to a crisis is essential. However, timely actions and resources to actually address the issues are often mired in sterile bureaucratic debates and divisions over how to fund such programmes. All too often such considerations have been left to humanitarian budgets to address. Yet building resilience requires a follow up of humanitarian aid with targeted actions to bolster resilience in the region and make it better prepared to contend with possible droughts. Jointly with our development partners we need to increase resilience through adaptive livelihood strategies and accessible safety nets, which will contribute to preventing and mitigating future food crises.
Therefore we have scaled up efforts to ensure the linkage between humanitarian and development actions. The EU's Joint Humanitarian-Development Framework in Niger is a case in point, where humanitarian and development actors sit together to properly identify the nature and causes of the crisis, the affected population and, subsequently, identify priorities for intervention. Only such a smart approach will allow sustainable food and nutrition security for the most vulnerable in the long term by enhancing their resilience. Another case in point is the €260m SHARE (Strengthening the Horn of Africa's Resilience) initiative, which the European Commission has just launched in the Horn of Africa. It is based on the Joint Humanitarian-Development Framework and foresees a phased approach for a comprehensive response. Within this framework humanitarian and development assistance is used according to comparative advantages and joint learning and exchanges, especially with regards to resilience projects, is promoted.
This is what the European Commission has been moving towards in recent years, based on its new policy for food assistance, which must, as a priority, be needs-based, evidence-based and results-focused.
Since 2006 we have supported pilot projects for drought risk reduction in the Horn of Africa. We have funded interventions such as early livestock destocking, rehabilitation of water dams, and management of rangelands. We have also established early-response mechanisms for when the emergency strikes: mobile health clinics, food vouchers and water trucking.
Moyale borders Kenya and Ethiopia. Although frequent droughts have caused livestock deaths, undermined livelihoods and stretched coping mechanisms, the population of Moyale is coping better than its neighbouring communities. Nutritional surveys conducted in June 2011, at the onset of the severe drought, showed substantially lower malnutrition rates.
One part of the explanation is a combination of Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) programmes that have equipped communities with the skills to better cope with the effects of droughts. The Commission has funded drought preparedness and mitigation interventions such as early reduction of herd sizes, rehabilitation of water dams and rangeland management.
The Commission has also supported measures to respond to the current emergency such as distribution of food vouchers and water trucking. Communities have formed DRR Committees which are in charge of local preparedness and traditional early warning systems. For instance, the Committees advise communities to migrate or to reduce the size of their herds whenever there is a looming drought. They also oversee the use of water and pasture in times of scarcity.
The Moyale community is proof that "slow onset" disasters such as droughts can be managed. It is vital that we build on such encouraging examples. The construction of a disaster resilient society needs the commitment and concerted effort of international organisations, donors, governments, local authorities as well as civil society.
And for this, humanitarians and development actors alike have to overcome their often compartmentalised approaches, they have to look and act beyond traditional mandates and sectors. Humanitarians have to put humanitarian principles at the service of the people they are to help, and if that requires working hand in hand with development actors and governments, then this does not mean we forego operational independence. After all, the humanitarian principles were established for situations of armed conflict, and not so much for fighting hunger. At the same time development actors – endowed with much more funding – need to better recognise the need to come in earlier with more flexible aid in order to allow for effective transition towards more disaster-resilient societies. If all of us show this flexibility and commitment to act together, then we can act smarter – and then we stand a much better chance to end hunger.
Kristalina Georgieva is EU Commissioner for international cooperation, humanitarian aid and crisis response. She is a former Vice-President of the World Bank.