Friday, October 26, 2012

Working with Communities to Strengthen Their Resilience

This year’s food crisis in the Sahel, a thin strip of land below the Sahara, marks the third time this decade that the region has suffered a food shortage. Chad and Niger, the two countries that traditionally have food shortages, were joined this year by Mali, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Senegal, Gambia, Cameroon and northern Nigeria. According to Save the Children and OxFam, over 18 million people in the Sahel are affected by hunger, and upwards of one million children are at risk of severe malnutrition.

The shortage did not come as a surprise; forecasting technology allows aid organizations to predict and plan for famines in advance. Therefore, the fact that famines happened in both 2005 and 2010 is rightfully frustrating to aid organizations, and leaves them wondering what can be done to better prevent or mitigate the cyclical food crises in the Sahel.
Map of countries and their food vulnerability

It is out of this frustration that aid agencies are recognizing the need to provide humanitarian aid with the intent of helping the long-term prospects of a community or state. The idea that programming should help people overcome shocks is referred to as resilience.

Resilience programming has been recognized as a step towards helping communities reduce their vulnerabilities so that when a major shock, such as a food crisis, political upheaval, or natural disaster occurs, there is less of an impact on the community. Or, if there is an impact, the community is able to return to their baseline level more quickly than without the aid programs. For example, negative coping skills, such as selling assets, would be less prevalent in a family that is resilient versus a family that is not. Moreover, systems should be resilient, meaning that a health center’s resources and staff should not be debilitated during a crisis. A resilient health center would be prepared for an increased patient load by training staff or having a supply chain that can react quickly to fluctuations in times of crisis.

As an intern at UNICEF’s West/Central Africa Regional Office this summer, I helped UNICEF gather information and plan for resilience-focused programs. Because the level of resilience of a community is determined by a number of factors, UNICEF is approaching resilience by looking at how their sectors are interacting and the best way to link their humanitarian aid with their development work.

In order to support this goal, I met with Section heads to gather information about how they see resilience fitting into their programs. I spoke with Country Offices to find out what they knew about the concept and whether or not the office had begun considering resilience as a framework when planning programs. I met with other UN agencies in order to learn about the coordinated approach to resilience, and met with other organizations to find out about their work. I helped create two monitoring tools to assess the progress towards implementation of resilience programming. Most important, I identified programming that was already promoting resilience, and identified areas where resilience-based programming could be increased in the Sahel.

Measuring the impact of resilience programming is difficult since so many factors can influence a person or community’s level of resilience, but I hope some operational research will take place to assess the impact of resilience programming. Research in both Palestine and Kenya by Alinovi et al. provides a comprehensive look at how to measure resilience to specific shocks. Columbia’s Sandro Galea used census data in the Gulf region to measure expected levels of resilience in communities impacted by Katrina.

Although the Sahel faces many challenges, I am hopeful about the future of the region. As a Peace Corps volunteer in Cameroon, I saw the daily challenges the population faces, but also saw populations that had inherent safety networks that provided resilience. Therefore, I believe that the combination of the natural evolution of existing safety nets coupled with smarter, more strategic aid from the international community will result in disasters that are less debilitating to communities in the Sahel.

Abigail Greenleaf
MPH Candidate, Mailman School of Public Health