Preparing for a crisis: A look at food security and disaster response

By Jared Klassen, MCC Ottawa Office Advocacy Research Intern

A few years ago I was driving home after a great July long-weekend with friends. Coming from the west coast we were all enjoying a relaxing drive through the mountains, windows rolled down, and some of our favorite tunes playing on the stereo.

Suddenly the music was accompanied by a new and unwelcomed rhythm – the “whomp-whomp-whomp” of a flat tire.

In that moment our itinerary expanded to include the unanticipated stop on the shoulder of the road. While it was an unfortunate event, we were prepared. After a brief rearrangement of our luggage I pulled out the spare tire, changed out the flat, and before you knew it we were back on course toward home. What could have been a small crisis was merely an inconvenience.

But what if that spare tire wasn’t there? Who (and what) would be involved in making sure we made it home safely and that my car would eventually be road-worthy once again?

Conversations in Ottawa

Earlier this month I had the privilege of being a part of a conference looking at the issue of food security in chronically food insecure contexts around the world. The conference, hosted by the Food Security Policy Group (FSPG) and the Humanitarian Coalition, brought together humanitarian (the “first-responders”) and development (focused on long-term solutions) practitioners to discuss some emerging trends and responses to issues of global food security.

The core theme, which may not come as a surprise, was the issue of connecting short-term and long-term goals and methodologies for a sole purpose of helping communities prepare for and respond to a food crisis.

The round-table sessions and use of case studies allowed us to ask some key questions: How can a community improve its resilience to potential crises? What does it mean to implement a Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) plan?

The Problem

Believe it or not, there often stands a considerable gap between humanitarian and development programming. Sometimes this is an organizational issue, where humanitarian and development planning may exist in two different (and occasionally isolated) departments, or perhaps a particular organization may focus specifically on one aspect of the aid/development spectrum. Often this divide is exacerbated by funding systems that categorically differentiate between aid/relief and long-term development, making long-term planning difficult.

The consequences can be disheartening, even devastating. Humanitarian efforts may be limited to an immediate response that fails to consider a community’s long-term objectives for restoration. Development planning, particularly in crisis-prone areas, may miss key opportunities that would help a community prepare for unexpected circumstances.

A Solution – what improves resilience?

So what should be done? How can we learn from these findings? Throughout the conference several themes emerged as practical ways to improve resilience.

Disaster Risk Reduction benefits from a multi-faceted approach: Trying to address some of the underlying factors that contribute to a crisis can be a challenging task. Issues of peace/conflict, gender, environment, local governance, access to water, health, and education can all contribute to a community’s disaster preparedness and resilience.

There is also a need for greater collaboration between humanitarian and development programming. In other words, we need to link short-term actions with long-term plans, share “lessons learned” along the way. This can happen within organizations, or in conversations between organizations involved in similar work.

One cannot underestimate the value of committing to a community for a longer period of time (see “In it for the long haul” from the previous blog post). This approach allows for meaningful relationships to be built and fosters a depth of understanding that can help a community identify and address some of the root causes of a potential crisis. These relationships can also help inform humanitarian efforts in designing a response that is appropriate for that particular community.

Be prepared

Let’s go back to the earlier story of my flat tire woes. While it pales in comparison to the severity of a food crisis, it’s a (overly) simple analogy that demonstrates value in planning ahead and preparing for the unexpected. Even though I couldn’t have predicted getting a flat tire on that trip, I had the foresight to know that having a spare tire is a good idea if you own a car (thanks Dad!). Had I not been prepared, our trip would have likely included a visit from a tow truck and an extra stop at a garage or even a hotel, not to mention some unhappy passengers and a hefty bill.

In the world of aid/development, estimates suggest that the ratio of the costs of replacing or rebuilding an asset vs. protecting it are between 5:1 and 10:1, let alone the more significant costs of broken livelihoods and even the loss of life. So why not be prepared?

What is MCC doing?

It’s not my intent to oversimplify this issue, but there are some strategies that help. I am also encouraged to see how MCC’s approach to relief and development models many of the “key findings” from this conference. Let me close by giving you a few examples:

The 2011 Food Crisis in the Sahel

ImageIn 2011 a widespread drought impacted over 18 million lives of people living in the Sahel, a region from the southern edge of the Sahara to the Red Sea. MCC responded to the food crisis not only with emergency food assistance, but also with some long-term responses. Based on local knowledge and community organizations, MCC supported the development of two grain banks. These grain banks will “give farmers a local market for their products and help provide stable food prices for the community.”

Furthermore, “Working with trusted partners on the ground enables us to get this food aid to people who need it most in the most timely fashion,” said Phil Schafran, Director of Donor Relations and Communications for Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) BC. “It also helps us in our long term planning, as these are the folks who know the situation and the area well.” Learn more

Drought Resilience in Mozambique

ImageIn Mozambique, MCC is working with local partners in drought-prone areas to develop sand dams, a system that helps conserve water, even in the hot dry season. This water can be used for drinking, irrigating crops, and feeding livestock.

This approach is often used in conjunction with Conservation Agriculture. This is a simple technology that encourages farmers use resources that are naturally available (such as grass cuttings, leaves, and animal manure) to help improve their crop yields. The approach also helps the soil to retain moisture, producing a more drought-resistant crop. Learn more about sand dams and conservation agriculture

Response to the 2010 Haiti earthquake

ImageMCC’s response to the 2010 Haiti earthquake began by addressing immediate needs of effected Haitians, but continues with a long term vision. Initial responses of food and emergency housing have transitioned to “livelihood” training programs in farming, masonry, plumbing, and electrical skills.

MCC’s involvement in Haiti is a longstanding commitment. In the town of Desarmes, MCC’s reforestation program has operated for 28 years. Earthquake funds have been used in this area to establish clean drinking water, build better irrigation and road systems and offer training in human rights.

MCC also supports local organizations that put pressure on the government to develop permanent housing solutions. The intent is that improved government systems will help address housing issues now and improve the country’s resilience to a future crisis. Learn more

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