Lives are being lost needlessly because of an aid system that favours crisis response over prevention
By Kevin Watkins, director of the Education for All Global Monitoring Report
Last year, a militia attacked 12-year-old Claudine’s village in Masisi district, eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Both of her parents were killed. Now Claudine lives in a makeshift camp for displaced people. Amid the squalor and the painful memories, a school funded by humanitarian aid provides an island of hope. Make that past tense. The DRC is yesterday’s emergency – and funding for the school is about to dry up. “We can’t go home and we need an education, so why can’t they keep my school open,” asks Claudine.
This is the front line of what has been called “Africa’s world war”. More than 5 million people have died, mainly from hunger and disease. Armed militias control large areas. And conflicts have forced 2 million to flee their homes. Yet levels of emergency aid are dropping quickly, partly because of a diversion of money to Haiti; and partly because there has been a brief dip in the level of violence.
If the DRC is a story of overhasty exit, then Niger is a case study in delayed engagement. Last year the rains failed with predictable results. One in five children aged 0-3 is now acutely malnourished. Oxfam and Save the Children have warned for months that the country is teetering on the brink of a repeat of the 2005 famine – and the UN’s humanitarian aid machinery is slowly cranking into gear. Yet even now, with around 7 million facing acute food shortages, Niger’s crisis appeal is underfunded.
Delay has costs. Vulnerable households sell off assets and pull children out of school. Tens of thousands have had their brains irreversibly damaged by malnutrition. The response to the Niger crisis gives a new meaning to the phrase “too little, too late”.
Human need is seldom the primary factor shaping international responses to humanitarian emergencies. Media images and interest carry immense weight. When it comes to emergency aid, after-the-event suffering sells. Pictures of the human suffering that comes with sudden shocks like the Asian tsunami or the earthquake in Haiti galvanise action. So do pictures of parched landscapes and kids with kwashiorkor –the disease that causes bloated bellies. Slow-fuse emergencies may destroy lives, but they don’t cut the mustard with news editors.
Bureaucratic delays in assessing need and in raising and releasing funds are common. For countries trapped in long-term emergencies, the annual funding cycles of humanitarian donors can hamper long-term planning.
Donors have to ensure that their priorities are better aligned with the aspirations of communities affected by emergencies. Keeping people alive and properly nourished in adversity is a priority. But people displaced by conflict also see education as a source of protection and hope for their children. Unfortunately, aid donors see things differently: they spend less than 2% of humanitarian aid on education, and no sector faces a bigger shortfall when it comes to aid appeals.
The current system is geared towards crisis response, not crisis prevention. Far more weight should be attached to reducing risk, building resilience and supporting recovery. International aid has a vital role to play. We know that climate change, rising food prices and ecological pressures are creating perfect storm conditions for future emergencies. Aid investments in smallholder agricultural systems and safety nets that protect vulnerable people can head off these emergencies. Crisis prevention is cheaper and better than cures after the event. That’s why ringfencing aid from budget cuts is not just a moral imperative – it’s good economics too.