Africa / Asia / Drought / Drylands / DRYLANDSCRP / Food Security / ILRI / Impact Assessment / Kenya / Pastoralism / Vulnerability

Drought responses–New briefing paper on lessons still to learn

'Maasai herding', by Kahare Miano

‘Maasai herding’, painting by Kahare Miano (photo credit: ILRI/Dave Elsworth).

A new 19-page briefing paper provides a synthesis of key lessons learnt from evaluations of relief and recovery responses to past slow-onset disasters—particularly drought, and food and livelihoods insecurity. The paper is intended for people working in relief and recovery operations for slow-onset disasters—those who have to decide if, when and how to intervene. The paper was developed by two organizations—the Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance ( and the ProVention Consortium (

Among the lessons they highlight are (1) to move away from ‘food-first’ responses, laying greater stress on water and livelihoods and (2) to intervene early to save money as well as lives.

‘ALNAP pored over 200 evaluations and lessons-learned reports since 2007 . . . . [with] the development-to-relief continuum . . .  now pretty much accepted as the way forward in drought situations.’

Several of the lessons learned in this briefing paper jibe with those offered by the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) in a study of the response to Kenya’s last devastating drought, in 2008–2009, especially the need for drought-cycle management. The ILRI study found that investments aimed at increasing the mobility of livestock herders—a way of life often viewed as ‘backward’ despite being one of the most economical and productive uses of Kenya’s drylands—could be key to averting future food crises in arid lands. The report, An Assessment of the Response to the 2008–2009 Drought in Kenya, suggests that herding makes better economic sense than crop agriculture in many of the arid and semi-arid lands that constitute 80 per cent of the Horn of Africa, and supporting mobile livestock herding communities in advance and with timely interventions can help people cope the next time drought threatens.

Here are 13 lessons reported by IRIN and outlined in the ALNAP/ProVention Consortium briefing paper.

‘1. Food aid does not meet many of the humanitarian needs caused by drought, according to European Union humanitarian agency ECHO. Beneficiaries in the Horn of Africa drought in 2008–9 said they were grateful for the food, but really needed water, seeds and fodder. Agencies should move away from “food-first” responses—most assessments focus “disproportionately” on food security, which can lead to “inappropriate interventions”, says ALNAP. Up to 70 percent of the Horn of Africa humanitarian appeals have focused on food since 2005, and only 15 percent on livelihoods. Assessments should equally evaluate health, water, fodder, market needs and nutrition indicators.

‘2. While there has been a lot of learning about the best ways to help pastoralists in droughts—setting up fodder storage and water points on migration routes; hay-making; timely destocking; cash transfers; cross-border response; applying LEGS minimum standards for livestock; these are rarely, if ever, implemented on a sufficient scale to make a significant difference.

‘3. Agencies and donors still do not pay enough attention to livelihoods: there is no livelihoods cluster and the Central Emergency Response Fund does not prioritize them as they are not considered “life-saving”, but this does not tally with people’s priorities on the ground.

‘4. Agencies and donors should get creative with their market interventions: consider index-based insurance (i.e. weather or crop insurance); food, milk and seed vouchers; subsidizing food; handing out cash.

‘5. Timely cash injections can save the need for more costly interventions later. Many beneficiaries respond best to a combination of cash and other responses. For instance, in Somalia in 2009 children receiving therapeutic feeding with Save the Children UK gained weight 45 percent more quickly when their families were also receiving cash vouchers. While the use of cash in emergencies has increased 100-fold over the last decade, more careful market analysis is still needed to make cash injections work well.

‘6. Timely water interventions—such as rebuilding water points, and setting up water management systems—are rarely well-funded or successfully implemented, so agencies often resort to trucking in water, which is expensive. Too often water programmes also reinforce social hierarchies—water assessments should take these factors into account.

‘7. Early warning triggers are much better than they used to be, but are still not necessarily acted upon. Getting in early in most interventions, saves cash: in southern Ethiopia, Save the Children US found it cost US$1 to help a pastoralist destock, which released enough money to feed their families for two months—the equivalent in food aid would have cost the agency $165.

‘8. Donors should be flexible with their development funding to respond to drought scenarios. ALNAP gives credit where credit is due: governments, donors and aid agencies are trying to move beyond the humanitarian-development divide in the current Horn of Africa drought response. Agencies should also practice “drought cycle management”—in other words, base responses on the cyclical nature of droughts. Oxfam in Wajir, Kenya, used flexible funds to repeatedly change its objectives from supporting livestock markets, to increasing trade, to helping pastoralists destock; to vaccinating animals as the crisis developed.

‘9. The better the vulnerability assessment, the more likely donors are to respond to it. For instance, the high-quality work produced by the Southern Africa “Vulnerability Assessment Committee”—with 36 members from government, NGOs, UN and donors—has sped up donor response to drought in the region. Agencies should be vigilant that assessments do not overlook vulnerable groups—such as poorer pastoralists, the elderly, or the displaced. NGO HelpAge International found high levels of malnutrition in the elderly in Borana, Ethiopia, in the 2000 drought, as they had been skipping meals to feed children, but only under-five malnutrition was originally assessed.

’10. Accountability to beneficiaries is much better, still not good enough: It needs to improve with stronger (and more culturally appropriate) communication with local communities, participatory assessments and better trained staff.

’11. Again, repeated for over a decade: response should aim to support local coping techniques—such as building on traditional knowledge and coping systems—rather than imposing new ones.

’12. Cut down the paperwork: to relieve aid agencies from spending a “disproportionate amount of time on timelines, log-frames and budgets”. Donors should consider more pooled funds to decrease reporting requirements.

’13. And finally, not enough is known about what local NGOs are doing to help reduce the impact of droughts; how locals help themselves and each other in drought situations; and too little attention has thus far been paid to the cost-effectiveness of different drought responses (measuring this against impact). More research is needed in each of these areas, says ALNAP.’

Read the article at IRIN: Drought response—lessons still to learn, 20 Oct 2011.

Read the briefing paper:  Slow-onset disasters: Drought and food and livelihoods insecurity—Learning from previous relief and recovery responses, ALNAP and ProVention Consortium, 2007.

Read the ‘lessons paper’: Humanitarian action in drought-related emergencies, ALNAP, Oct 2011.

Read ILRI’s report: An assessment of the response to the 2008–2009 drought in Kenya: A report to the European Union Delegation to the Republic of Kenya, 2010, by Lammert Zwaagstra, Zahra Sharif, Ayago Wambile, Jan de Leeuw, Mohamed Said, Nancy Johnson, Jemimah Njuki, Polly Ericksen and Mario Herrero.

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