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From East Africa to Pakistan…

Overcoming the challenges of early action in drought crises

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This week all eyes in the humanitarian community are on the Horn of Africa (Kenya, Ethiopia, Somalia), which is facing a major humanitarian crisis driven by extreme drought conditions. NGOs, along with their UN counterparts are banging the drum to alert governments and donors of the need to act early, at scale, to avert the crisis. The question is whether we are capable of learning the lessons from the Horn of Africa in 2011, when 260,000 lives were lost in Somalia alone.

From the way in which food crises and famine is reported in the media, it would be easy to assume that this phenomenon can, like an earthquake, strike out of no-where. The reality is very different, a slow and predictable escalation from failed harvests, to increasingly desperate strategies to secure enough food for the family. These include pulling children out of school, selling off the family’s goats on which they depend for milk, migrating to find water, and eventually cutting down food to one meal a day. It can take families decades to recover, long after the extreme conditions have passed. The effects are catastrophic, families halfway up the poverty ladder having it kicked away from under them.

The good news is that we know what to do to mitigate and avert some of the worst effects of crises like these. These include actions to help the poorest protect their precious livestock, such as vaccination campaigns and providing fodder for them to eat. Other actions include providing small monthly cash transfers or food vouchers to the mothers of the household. We also know that it is cheaper than waiting for a famine to take hold. I remember working on one such project in West Africa, where families were given the equivalent of just £12 a month to get them through the worst period. By comparison, it cost £60 a week to treat one child in a clinic suffering from severe acute malnutrition. In this instance, prevention is quite literally better as well as cheaper than cure.

However, to date, there are very few successful examples where this has happened. As documented many times by the Start Network, the outpouring of funding that we need to respond is generally prompted by suffering, often on the front pages of the media. However, a crisis that has not yet happened doesn’t make a very good story. We need new and different types of funding instruments, that are released in response to triggers of emerging crises, rather than waiting until they escalate.

Pakistan, a new opportunity

I returned last week from Pakistan, where a group of ten NGOs have come together to work on prototyping a new Start Network financing facility to specifically release funds for early action in emerging droughts. Similar to East Africa, drought is a major issue in Pakistan, with little to no funding available to provide protection for the vulnerable in the early stages of major crises.

The new Drought Financing Facility looks to address this by applying a risk management approach. What this means is that we no longer treat droughts as if they are unexpected surprises, but we use science to plan in advance when and where they are likely to happen and to pre-position the donor funding to respond.

A key part of the process is the contingency planning which we started last week. The NGO design group worked through two case-studies of previous droughts in Balochistan 2002 and Sindh Province 2014, reflecting on what happened when and how earlier funding could have made a difference.

At first the activity was challenging as the NGOs had never had access to early action funding before. But it quickly became apparent that in both examples there were six critical months of the year when drought awareness campaigns, protective cash transfers and livestock interventions could have saved many lives and livelihoods.   

One of the most innovative aspects of this project is the pre-positioned funding to deliver these response plans, which will involve not just contingency funding but also parametric insurance linked to drought triggers. The NGO group converted the cost of the response plans into an estimated ‘sum insured’ and used a prototype online platform developed by our partners GlobalAgRisk, to understand what this would look like as an annual premium.

One of the most successful outcomes of the week was observing the collaboration and collective experimentation amongst the NGOs, many of whom were already working together on other Start Network initiatives. We also received strong commitments for support from the Pakistan National Disaster Management Authority.

Over the next few months we will be working to refine these plans, as well as work on improving the scientific drought risk model which underpins the mechanism. We will also be replicating the design process in a second test country, Zimbabwe, with the intention of fundraising for active pilots later this year.

The development of the Drought Financing Facility is supported by the Humanitarian Innovation Fund. Please don’t hesitate to contact us if you would like to find out more.

Read the press release

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Insurance Pakistan Risk Financing

  • by Emily Montier