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A change of mind set

Development and humanitarian assistance are sometimes seen as two separate worlds. Two European commissioners — representing EU humanitarian assistance and development efforts — say it’s time for that to change

Droughts and crop failures which sparked a hunger crisis in the Horn and Sahel regions of Africa have caused countless deaths in the last two years. Elsewhere in the world severe droughts, floods and other dramatic events also regularly hit the population.

However we can see the difference in the ability of different countries to react to dramatic changes and the ability of people to cope with unexpected stress and shocks.

In one word, the difference is resilience.

We have the means to prepare the most vulnerable communities for drought, floods and other cyclical crises via data analysis, pattern recognition, risk assessment, smart investments and community-based activities.

In parts of the Horn of Africa and in the Sahel, for instance, European projects have eased the worst effects of the drought in some areas, thus helping thousands of people to avoid hunger.

Fostering this kind of resilience makes sense financially. Every euro invested in disaster-preparedness saves between four and seven euros on disaster response. Building resilience is cheaper, more efficient and more sustainable than dealing with the consequences of yet another crisis. It is the right thing to do if we in the humanitarian and development community are serious about saving lives and making those lives worth living.

No wonder, then, that the global humanitarian and development community is actively looking for ways to integrate resilience in their activities. The European Union, as a global leader in humanitarian and development aid, is also making a big step in this direction.

In the EU’s new policy paper on resilience released in 2012, we have committed ourselves to build resilience measures into our humanitarian and development projects and to link our activities more closely together for a smooth transition between disaster relief, rehabilitation and development.

We recognise the world has changed. There are more frequent and more severe shocks for communities to handle. So our approach has to change as well. We aim to manage crises better by helping address their root causes rather than struggling with their consequences. In this respect, food insecurity is an area with great potential for improvement. Its causes are often complex, including climate change, weak productivity, price volatility, growing populations, limited access to markets.

They are also hard to overcome. But overcome them we must, if we are to solve the world’s largest solvable problem — hunger, which affects close to a billion people today.

The good news is that we are not starting from scratch: we already have encouraging results in resilience-building in Africa where we have launched the SHARE Initiative (Horn of Africa) and the AGIR partnership (Sahel), linking humanitarian and development resources to boost recovery from the recent droughts and raise the capacity of the most vulnerable communities to survive and bounce back from future droughts.

This is a substantial shift in mentality and practice: from distributing aid to drought-affected people in order to survive until the next drought to investing in the long run — building irrigation systems, promoting more resistant crops, helping pastoralists manage their livestock. Only recently, for instance, the EU invested three million euros in HarvestPlus, which develops more nutritious and resilient seeds for poor farmers in Africa.

These types of projects are not yet at a large-enough scale as large as is needed. But they are the basis of more to come. SHARE and AGIR focus on food security, but we plan to promote resilience also in other regions and for other types of vulnerability; regions threatened by floods, cyclones, earthquakes and tsunamis, for instance. To achieve positive results in such contexts, we will focus on three key components: risk assessment, prevention and enhanced response.

We can only tackle a problem if we understand the risks and channel this knowledge towards appropriate responses. Consider, for instance, Nepal where floods hit in 2010. Thanks to the early-warning systems working through radio and mobile phones, the communities living in the danger zones near the river Rapt, were evacuated before the water reached their villages. Substantial loss of life and damage to property was avoided.

Resilience can only grow and deliver on its promise if it becomes a priority for all — not just for donors such as the European Union, who need to make aid more flexible and better targeted, but also for governments of the countries in high disaster vulnerability; for the private sector which can contribute important know-how on insurance and risk assessment; and for civil society.

We in the European Commission are giving a clear signal that we are willing to re-examine our priorities as a donor. We will work together within the humanitarian and development communities, with policy-makers and all other partners, to find adequate and lasting solutions to hunger and disaster exposure, which threaten more people than ever.

By Kristalina Georgieva, European Union Commissioner for International Cooperation, Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Response; and
Andris Piebalgs, European Union Commissioner for Development

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