The Horn of Africa: Relearning Crucial Development Lessons

Today, as we scramble to relieve the desperate situation in the Horn, we must make sure we don't look at this merely as an interruption in business as usual.
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

As the international community gathers tomorrow in Rome to discuss the emergency in the Horn of Africa, it is important to recognize the commitment of the UN system, NGOs and donors to coordinated humanitarian action in the region. OECD donors alone have already directly committed $1.49 billion to the region this year, on top of the core funding they provide through UN agencies and emergency pooled funds.

This said, the crisis in the Horn of Africa is indicative of development failure. Early warning systems predicted it a year ago. Since then, people's household reserves have been gradually exhausted, forcing them to leave their land in search of food. We also know from experience that the populations hardest hit by disasters such as drought are the most marginalized -- in this case hard-to-reach pastoralist communities, difficult to reach and often without access to basic services, development programs and decision-making processes. Early response could have helped people to stay on their farms and protect their assets, slowing the reversal of hard-earned progress in development.

Yet opportunities to prevent the crisis -- by providing timely funding and strengthening community resilience -- were largely missed. Early action could certainly have provided much better value for money than today's costly -- although necessary -- emergency response. Some studies say that one dollar spent on prevention is worth four in relief. This is particularly important at a time when there is increasing pressure on aid budgets in the major donor countries.

Unfortunately, lessons are always easier to affirm in hindsight. This is why today, as we scramble to relieve the desperate situation in the Horn, we must make sure we don't look at this merely as an interruption in business as usual. Unless we do things differently by truly prioritizing in our development programs and humanitarian responses the people and communities most at risk -- helping to build resilience into their livelihood systems -- we will have to learn this lesson over and over again.

Development efforts need to be more creative, incorporating social protection instruments such as cash or food transfers and public works. These instruments build resilience and productivity, and can contribute to important infrastructure and environmental capital. At the same time, they provide the systems needed to enable speedy response to emergencies before they become crises.

This twin-track approach -- of early action balanced with appropriate emergency intervention -- is critical. Building long-term resilience -- for instance through increased household assets, reserves and safety nets -- is the only way to ensure that episodes of drought do not become famines and that natural disasters do not become crises. At the same time, the right type of response to emergencies -- including early warning and the ability to respond quickly -- is essential to strengthen the capacity of countries and communities to prevent and prepare for humanitarian crises. Climate change research and funding for adaptation also need to focus on livelihood systems like those of the pastoralists and agro-pastoralists in the Horn of Africa. And donors need to take risks, supporting peace through the creation of responsive and legitimate state structures -- even where conflict is ongoing and in remote, marginalized areas.

The crisis in the Horn of Africa is still building. While we work to limit its impact and ensure that funding continues to be available, we also need to support the return to sustainable livelihoods. We know that the frequency and severity of drought is likely to increase in the region. While dealing with the present, donors and local governments need to look to the future, planning and investing in a mix of humanitarian and development tools that will build resilience in vulnerable communities, protect productive assets and promote livelihoods.

High and volatile food prices make this job much more difficult, threatening the predictability of financing for ongoing social transfer programs and driving food insecurity in countries and households that depend on purchases from the global market. Implementing the Agriculture Market Information System proposed by the G20 will be an important measure to curb excessive global price volatility.

The OECD has looked at many of our hard-learned development lessons to produce guidelines for the establishment of forward-looking social protection programs. It also promotes the Principles and Practices of Good Humanitarian Donorship and has worked with partners to develop recommendations on Transition Financing: Building a Better Response. The Accra Agenda for Action, subscribed to in 2008 by donors and developing countries alike, calls for flexible, rapid and long-term funding modalities to bridge humanitarian response, recovery and longer-term development.

Now is the time to act on these commitments, addressing potential crises effectively -- preferably, before they occur. Aid budgets under pressure and donor focus on value for money may provide an opportunity. The people of the Horn of Africa -- and marginalised communities worldwide -- make it an imperative.

Stephen P. Groff is the Deputy Director for Development Cooperation at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris.