Learning the Lessons: Why is change NOT happening in the response to hunger crises?

April 19, 2013

     By Duncan Green     

I know I go on all the time about ‘how change happens’, but often in development the important question is ‘why doesn’t change happen?’, and we needCash for work Burkina to get better at answering it. On Tuesday Oxfam published Learning the Lessons, an analysis of the response to the 2012 Sahel food crisis, which affected some 18m people across 9 countries. It’s a serious piece of work, drawing on interviews with 30 external bodies – donors, governments etc, other published research, focus group discussions with affected communities and perspectives from civil society.

Compared to the ‘too little, too late’ response to previous crises in the region in 2010 and 2005, the report finds some improvements: early warning systems had improved and raised the alarm earlier, and governments in the region reacted in good time – Niger, for example, appealed for support six months earlier than it did during the 2010 crisis.

But there were still problems with governments, donors and the aid system. Governments in the region still lack the financial and technical capacity to really be able to lead. As for donors:

‘There was still disagreement about the likely severity of the crisis. Some donors, such as the European Community’s Humanitarian Office (ECHO), acted earlier than in previous years, but overall, donor funding was no more timely than before. By the beginning of July 2012 and the peak of the crisis, the UN appeal remained just under 50 per cent funded.’

This really matters: 5.6 million people didn’t get the seeds and tools they needed in time to prepare for the 2012 harvest cycle.

Interestingly, the report sees the roadblock as conceptual, and argues that this can be overcome by changing the way we think about such crises to emphasise the concept of ‘resilience’ – very much the current buzzword in a lot of development circles. ‘Learning the Lessons’ reckons a ‘resilience lens’ would allow donors to:

–          Develop a shared understanding of vulnerability to food insecurity so that support is targeted to the poorest and responses can be launched rapidly;

–          Break down barriers between humanitarian and development actors so that long-term and emergency programmes effectively support each other;

–          Invest in strengthening the capacity of national and local actors so that governments can deliver large-scale, sustained support to their citizens.

SahelFoodCrisis2012-Map scaledI must admit I was initially sceptical that the answer to such a profound failure is a new buzzword. But actually, I think the authors may be on to something.

The most useful framework I’ve found for understanding the roots of inertia (aka ‘why change doesn’t happen’) is the ‘3i’ model of ideas, institutions and interests. A combination of these three underlies the kind of paralysis we’ve seen in the Sahel response.

Institutions: there is still a deep division between the ‘humanitarian/emergency’ and ‘long term development’ wings of the aid business. This is reflected in funding structures, which are completely different for the two silos. The polarization makes it hard to take a long-term approach to reducing the vulnerability to the inevitable future crises.

Interests: if you work in an aid agency, there are clear risks to responding early to a crisis – what if the rains come, you are accused of crying wolf etc? In any case, your political pay masters often only start banging the table when the grim TV images start to roll (by which time it is often too late, and certainly much more expensive, to respond). There is also still something of a macho ‘I’m here to save lives, get out of my way’ approach to humanitarian work which can all too easily brush aside national governments and local knowledge that are crucial to understanding the long-term roots of crises, and building institutions to deal with future ones. National governments need to be at the heart of efforts to address food insecurity, but that is likely to threaten the power relations of the status quo,

Ideas: The institutional silos reflect a crippling conceptual dichotomy. Cyclical crises such as those affecting the Sahel really can’t be described as ‘emergencies’, in that they are predictable and regular. But the underlying thinking in the aid business is still ‘is that an emergency, or is it long term development? Do we send in the engineers or the economists?’

One of the things I’ve noticed about climate change is that it is a ‘disruptive idea’. Disruptive ideas can’t be fitted into existing entrenched mental andresilience_ext_pro organizational frameworks, and so often prompt violent rejection, but also the possibility of paradigm shifts. Because climate change doesn’t ‘belong’ to any existing camp, it makes it easier to bring people together (development and environment, for example) to think differently about how we respond to it without prompting accusations of turf wars and interference. Is ‘resilience’ also a disruptive idea, with the potential to bypass the humanitarian/development divide?

I’m sure there is a big literature our there about the characteristics and impact of disruptive ideas. Any links appreciated.

April 19, 2013
Duncan Green