As policymakers discuss how to avoid the fiscal cliff, including sequestration, U.S. development agencies are continuing to take steps to make development and humanitarian assistance more effective. In the wake of the famine in the Horn of Africa, a typhoon in the Philippines, and even Hurricane Sandy at home, USAID’s new policy – one that actually isn’t an acronym – “Resilience” is about using existing development dollars more effectively in disaster prone regions, so that less humanitarian assistance is needed in the future.
Almost half our funding consistently goes to countries classified as “long term recipients” of U.S. humanitarian aid, with 75% of USAID’s humanitarian aid going to 10 countries over the last decade. Making it easy to predict “where and who” is likely to be affected: Sub-Saharan Africa. Tragically, this region has experienced more than “1,000 disasters” over the past four decades. These fairly cyclical humanitarian crises disproportionately impact areas defined by chronic poverty and conflict. Such despair can strip humans of their dignity and create conditions that extremists exploit – something that rings all too true in the Horn of Africa.
The cycle, however, also includes America’s response – the world’s largest humanitarian aid donor – complete with public awareness campaigns (e.g., “FWD Campaign,” USAID’s multimedia response to the 2011 drought,). The American public’s generosity is extraordinary, as is the dedication of those working on the frontlines of humanitarian disasters. But this new policy is about getting at the root causes of the circumstances that can lead to the need for humanitarian interventions and then, deploying new technologies and forging new partnerships to break this cycle.
And as we saw in Ethiopia, it is possible. In 2005, Ethiopia began a resilience program, Productive Safety Nets Programme. As a result, when the worst drought in 60 years hit Ethiopia and its neighbors and plunged over 13 million people in East Africa into crisis, the resilience program paid off. This collaborative initiative between the Ethiopian government and international donors – including USAID – resulted in noticeable improvements to the program’s targeted areas during the 2011 drought and a more cost-effective response of $53 per person. This compares with $169 per person during the United Nations and NGO-managed response to the crisis – in spite of earlier warnings of the impending disaster.
But what’s the ultimate goal? USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah says success will be measured by whether USAID is able “to put ourselves out of business” by reducing the number, volume, and length of time of the “infusions of humanitarian assistance needed in the future.” Translating it down to the local level, as His Excellency Elkanah Odembo, Kenyan Ambassador to the United States, told the audience at the policy’s launch event, a key indicator will be whether the next drought to strike the Horn of Africa – and you can count on one – leads to smaller numbers of displaced persons crossing the border into his country.
As America strives to get our own fiscal house in order, the fact of the matter is that we’re also nearing a critical mass for relief and development funding. Meaning, “doing more of the same,” to quote Administrator Shah, is no longer an option. Nor should it be.