Swift move by EU helped ease nutrition crisis, UN official says

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SPECIAL REPORT / Faced with a worsening drought and food crisis in Africa’s Sahel region last year, the United Nations got a sudden infusion of EU cash to provide nutritional help to 1.5 million pregnant women and children.

UN officials say the European Commission’s decision to divert €30 million in EU humanitarian aid to the World Food Programme’s emergency nutrition effort – a week after allocating €275 million for the the Sahel – helped prevent a far deeper crisis, but also showed the value of flexible response and funding.

The Commission’s humanitarian arm, ECHO, “channelled” money to the WFP to provide emergency food and nutritional supplements for pregnant women and children under two to help prevent stunting and other serious health effects of severe malnutrition, said Valerie Guarnieri, WFP’s regional director for east and central Africa.

The money was used to address “the acute malnutrition as well as to prevent the underlying stunting problem from turning into and exacerbating the acute crisis.”

The Sahel crisis is far from over. Some 10 million people are still facing food shortages and 1.4 million young children are suffering from malnutrition, UN figures show.

But Guarnieri said the Sahel offered lessons in the importance of early intervention and, in what relief organisations have long pressed for, more nimble humanitarian response from the EU and other donors.

Relief workers donors are often too slow to move and call for allowing more flexible use of humanitarian as well as development funding to respond to crises, like those in the Sahel, refugee crises like the one in Syria, and the severe drought in 2011 that affected more than 13 million people the Horn of Africa.

Most donors are locked into annual or multiannual appropriations, requiring guesswork on the part of number-crunchers trying to forecast spending needs.

“The legislation is such that humanitarian funds are in most cases appropriated and then subsequently allocated subject to fairly strict criteria, both in terms in of the time horizon … as well as in terms of what those funds can be used for,” Guarnieri told EurActiv in an interview.

“So it’s quite encouraging,” she said, “some of the progress that the EU made in the context of the Sahel [was] to really try to push that envelope in terms of the humanitarian resources. And I think there are some promising steps that were taken that hopefully can become mainstreamed.”

Budget challenges ahead

A bigger challenge on the horizon may be less about fiscal flexibility than sustainability.

Though an EU budget deal for 2014-2020 still has not been hammered out by the European Commission, Council and Parliament, funding for foreign development and humanitarian assistance is expected to stagnate or decline.

In the meantime, few European states are expected to meet their commitments to development aid, potentially undermining the EU’s pledges to do more for the least developed countries. It has also launched a new communication that promises do prioritise childhood and maternal nutrition in its food and health programmes.

Commissioners Andris Piebalgs, in charge of development aid, and  Kristalina Georgieva, who oversees humanitarian assistance, have pledged to fight budget cuts, citing challenges and EU commitments in developing countries and conflict zones.

“If there would be cuts in the Commission’s proposal, the question would be: Will they be deeper in the area of humanitarian aid? I hope not,” Georgieva told EurActiv in a recent interview, “because we trust the facts, and the facts are that the humanitarian budget is tiny, it’s 0.62% [of the total EU budget], but with this money we help 150 million people. And for them, this is the most important thing the Commission does, Europe does.”

Funding is a major concern for WFP, which depends on the EU for more than one-quarter of its contributions for humanitarian operations. Total contributions from the Commission and EU states topped €1.63 billion in 2011 and 2012.

Guarnieri took over the WFP’s eastern African operations in February. Asked what the EU could do to make her new job easier, she said: “I’d be looking for legislation that both permits and requires the flexibility in the use of resources, so we need to break down the silos between humanitarian and development.

“It makes a tough job even harder if we have pitch to different silos and if we don’t have the opportunity for longer-term investment and engagement in these countries, and the parts of the countries, where we have the chance to support populations over time and to make them more resilient.”

Timeline: 
  • 14-15 May: Unicef holds its undernutrition conference in Paris
  • 20–28 MaySixty-sixth World Health Assembly
  • 8 June: G8 Forum on nutrition in Britain
  • 13-15 Nov.: Food and Agriculture Organisation-World Health Organisation International Conference on Nutrition in Rome
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