UN food official: Donor flexibility is vital to crisis response

Valerie Guarnieri_interview_WFP.jpg

This article is part of our special report Nutrition and Child Survival.

The World Food Programme is UN’s front-line agency in disaster and conflict areas. Its new director in the Horn of Africa, Valerie Guarnieri, says the European Union’s recent crisis response in sub-Saharan Africa should set a new standard for financing humanitarian action.

Valerie Guarnieri was named the World Food Programme’s regional director for East and Central Africa in February. Previously, she was based at the WFP’s Rome office. The following are excerpts of an interview with EURACTIV’s Timothy Spence in Brussels.

There was a serious drought and food crisis in East Africa in 2011. What is the situation today?

Certainly we’re not in the regional crisis situation that we faced in 2011, in part because the broader food security situation in the region better, that is clear, but also because we don’t on top of it have the haemorrhaging of Somalia to be coping with and the impact that had on the main countries, Kenya and Ethiopia, that were dealing with the burden.

In Somalia we have a very nascent government, we’re all quite encouraged that moves are being made in the right direction, but it’s going to be a long way to go before the situation is stable and we’re still fundamentally working at the community level in Somalia. But the refugee outflow situation – both the needs in Dadaab and the needs in Dolo Ado [refugee camps in Kenya and Ethiopia, respectively] – are very much under control now in terms of having all the care and maintenance arrangements in place to deal with the current population, and the continued much small numbers who move out. So that’s quite encouraging. …

We’re in a better position to respond than were in 2011 but we’re still not in the position that we should be as an international community to respond to what remain of pockets of food insecurity, including some quite severe pockets. So we’re concerned there. … We see needs continuing at a significant scale in Ethiopia, though there is a good system there in order to respond through these regular rounds of assistance …

And there are pockets in Djibouti and in Kenya in the arid and semi-arid lands that we’re worried about. But overall, regional production is quite promising this year so within the region we feel we have largely the resources to respond. The question is making sure we have the funding to do it and then in areas like Somalia the access continues to be a problem.

Childhood nutrition has suddenly a big policy push in Brussels as well as internationally. In the broader scope of hunger, where does this fit?

It’s a big problem. It’s a problem on two counts: because in several of the countries in the region – mainly in South Sudan, in Somalia, in the arid and semi-arid lands, in Kenya, and in vulnerable regions in Ethiopia – every time there is a shortage, we see spikes of acute malnutrition that vastly exceed the emergency threshold of 15%. So that’s a recurring problem that we have to deal with.

But in addition to that, we know now that when you have an underlying high rate of stunting [slow physical development of children] – and most of not all of the countries in the region exceed the 30% level of stunting – then it’s a precursor for a critical acute situation when a crisis hits.

There are going to be droughts and floods and other sorts of disaster in the region. If we don’t get the chronic malnutrition, the stunting problem, under control, then we’re not going to be able to get in front of these acute nutritional spikes that happen every time there is a crisis.

What is your opinion of the European Commission’s new policy on aid for child and maternal nutrition in developing countries?

I think it’s a good policy. We had quite a bit of opportunity to engage in it and what will be important is to ensure that in its implementation, that the longer-term investments are made in these areas – not just the countries, but in the areas that are subject to recurring crisis.

The statistics on stunted children are quite alarming – more than 5 million in Ethiopia, more than 2 million in Kenya. Millions more suffer from other acute nutrition-related health problems. Who is to blame for this toll?

I don’t really see it as assigning blame. It’s more an issue of what’s causing it.

We know in terms of stunting it’s a great composite indicator because in order to prevent stunting, you need to have adequate access to healthcare, particularly for women of child-bearing age and young children, you need to have adequate access to clean water and appropriate sanitation, and you need to have adequate access to nutritious food.

So that’s quite the recipe … and most people in poor and marginalised communities, some don’t have sufficient access to any of those things but few would have access to all of them.

It requires action across those sectors, but ultimately of course it’s the responsibility of governments to ensure that their populations have access to clean water, healthcare, sanitation and food. But realising that responsibility is obviously a challenge for countries where their own production doesn’t meet their country’s needs, where they’re economically struggling to ensure the well-being of their population. And agencies do their best with the resources available to try to help the governments address those gaps.

These problems are recurring and so many donor resources seem to be spent on crisis and humanitarian response. Does there need to be a re-boot to focus on long-term development solutions rather than crisis response?

It’s not fair to say donors in general are focused on crises, because in fact there are vastly more resources available globally for development than there is for humanitarian assistance. …

The shift that needs to happen is twofold. Donors should ensure maximum flexibility possible in the programming of their humanitarian resources [to] allow for addressing these issues that only make humanitarian crises more expensive and only make the problems more acute for the people.

But at the same time we’ve got to pull the development donors, or the development resources from the same resources, into those very countries, and then not just into the countries but into the areas that are subject to the crisis. …

So you will have a country like Kenya, and to achieve production markers or health markers that would be established from a development perspective, most of the resources wouldn’t be channelled to the [country’s] arid and semi-arid lands. They would be channelled to other parts of the country. Meanwhile, we have governments that have invested in the more productive areas of the country, sometimes for economic reasons and sometimes for other reasons. So these very marginal areas are the very areas that have been neglected by development and really continue to be neglected by development.

What’s exciting about the resilience approach is the opportunity to really have that dialogue that allows us to help pull these longer-term investments into the very areas that are subject to the recurring crises.

This means mixing humanitarian funding and development aid?

It’s a mix of humanitarian and development. We need flexibility with humanitarian resources [and] you don’t already have that flexibility, or the donors don’t have that flexibility.

Most of the donors don’t have the flexibility themselves, including the Europeans. 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.

So it’s quite encouraging … some of the progress that the EU made in the context of the Sahel [drought and food crisis in 2012 ] 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.

Such as?

“The resources that were appropriated on the humanitarian side were stretched in terms of the types of activities that would be used to fund, particularly in the area of nutrition. So there was a major investment – I know we benefitted at WFP – from ECHO [EU humanitarian aid] resources in Niger that were used in a blanket supplementary feeding programme that was used both to address the acute malnutrition as well as to prevent the underlying stunting problem from … exacerbating the acute crisis.

We were using special highly nutritious, ready-to-use supplementary foods …  allowing all children to get this food as part of a mother-and-child health programme that then helped ensure that those children didn’t then become acutely malnourished. …

I would like to see that kind of action within the [European Commission], but of course also with the individual countries and the other donors to move beyond an ad-hoc decision made in a compelling crisis to something that is more mainstream. Maximise the legislative flexibility that they have, and then on the legislative side so that flexibility is legislated.

This must be one of the toughest assignments at WFP.

It’s tough because it’s big. It’s the biggest operational region. The scale of the need as well as the scale of our operations is significant. And because we’re 100% voluntarily funded, we’re on this treadmill of raising resources to support and in moments of high visibility, those resources come in relatively easier, but then when the region is off the radar screen it gets harder and harder to keep the momentum up to raise the resources. So it’s challenging in that way. But the opportunities are huge, too…

What should European Union be doing to help?

From the Parliament, 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.

For the region – and it goes a bit to the European public – East Africa is not a basket case. It’s a region with a lot of challenges, but it’s a region where there is growth and there is promise and there is more investment needed to help that multiply.

So I’d like to see the region benefiting and participating in that kind of dialogue and see donor attention focused more on [long-term] investments without ignoring the need to continue live-saving assistance, and not to only think about the region when the cameras are flashing on drought victims.

>> Read a related news article here.

Photo of Valerie Guarnieri ©FAO/Giulio Napolitano

Subscribe to our newsletters