Going Beyond Emergency Food Assistance

4 minutes read time
A small boy stands in front of a wooden cart carrying bags with the U.S. flag on them. The setting is a dusty road in a rural community in Ethiopia.
Families impacted by the 2017 drought getting their monthly food rations in Somali region of Ethiopia.

Going Beyond Emergency Food Assistance

This year we are confronting unprecedented levels of food insecurity worldwide. South Sudan, Somalia, Nigeria and Yemen all are facing the credible threat of famine.

But it’s recent natural disasters in the United States that have reminded me crises can happen everywhere and anywhere. Wherever they happen, people need help to survive and get back on their feet.

That’s why at USAID’s Office of Food for Peace, we save lives, but also focus on equipping people with the knowledge and tools to feed themselves, so we can reduce the need for future food assistance.

USAID worker kneels while speaking to a mother in traditional dress, holding her small child.

USAID Food for Peace Acting Director Matt Nims visited a health center at ZamZam camp in Darfur, Sudan to meet women and children receiving WASH and nutrition assistance from USAID.

I recently traveled to Sudan, South Sudan and Ethiopia, and saw both sides of our work in action.

In Ethiopia, we’ve worked to empower families and communities to better withstand natural disasters. For example, we’ve taught farmers to build terraces to prevent erosion and harvest rainwater, and techniques such as mulching their land to improve the soil and protect the land from heat.

In partnership with the Ethiopian Government, other donors and the communities themselves, these efforts and many others have made a noticeable difference.

An African man and woman kneel next to a box of grain, behind them are large white bags of grain, one man is lifting a bag.

World Food Program staff distributed maize grown by Ethiopian farmers to other Ethiopians in need during the El Nino-induced drought in 2016.

Last year, when Ethiopia suffered an El Niño-induced drought, we found that households in communities reached by comprehensive resilience programs experienced just a small decline in their food security (4 percent) compared to other households (30 percent).

Some Ethiopians were even in a position to help their neighbors who had no food.

Using techniques learned from USAID, a number of Ethiopians farmers increased their harvests enough to sell their maize to the UN World Food Program. USAID then gave funding to the World Food Program to buy and distribute this food to families who need it in the drought-affected areas of Ethiopia.

So even while we’re providing emergency food assistance in some parts of Ethiopia, in others, farmers are helping each other through these tough times.

These examples show that where conditions are right, we can move beyond humanitarian assistance and have a long-term positive impact.

But the reality is, we can’t do this everywhere.

USAID officer stands behind a group of small South Sudanese children, around them are wood huts with clothes line between them.

USAID Food for Peace Acting Director Matt Nims visits a USAID-funded site in South Sudan that provides emergency food assistance to those facing life-threatening hunger.

We are agile where we can be, and are leaders in doing so.

For example, in Madagascar last year, Food for Peace’s development partners already had food commodities in the country, and were able to pivot to emergency assistance at the start of the hunger season  --  the time of year when crops have been planted but are not ready for harvesting  --  to ease the worst impacts of El Niño. By doing so, our partners prevented and treated high levels of malnutrition among young children and women.

Similarly, after Hurricane Matthew in Haiti, our development partner was able to quickly mobilize and provide hot meals to families devastated by the hurricane.

Our efforts in places like the Sahel and northern Kenya are helping chronically poor families who face recurrent crises like drought. For example, we’re using market-based approaches like cash transfers for food so communities support local businesses, while helping them access food and recover.

Food for Peace is in a unique position within USAID to not only save lives, but also to look ahead to ensure families and communities have the rights skills and tools to withstand droughts and other crises that could prevent them from getting enough food.

Our ability to pivot from development to emergency assistance when a crisis happens enables us to look for creative solutions to help communities recover faster.

We know emergency assistance is not a long-term solution. As USAID Administrator Mark Green has frequently said, “I believe the purpose of foreign assistance should be ending its need to exist.” And I believe we can do so.

About the Author: Matt Nims is Acting Director of USAID’s Office of Food for Peace. Follow him @Director_FFP.

This entry originally appeared in USAID's 2030: Ending Extreme Poverty in this Generation publication on Medium.com.