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Prevention funding saves more lives than emergency aid

Vancouver Sun
Monday, February 27, 2012

Albert Einstein once said the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

On Feb. 3, the United Nations declared the famine over in Somalia. But all is not well yet. Some nine million people throughout the Horn of Africa still face a serious food crisis, but the worst of the disaster that has claimed as many as 100,000 lives, mostly children, has passed.

Now the world will turn its attention, resources and donations to the next disaster, like the growing hunger crisis in the Sahel region of northwest Africa. We can predict how it will go.

Aid organizations will issue dire press releases for a month or two, which will be ignored at first. As the scale of the emergency grows, the media will discover the story and camera teams will rush to the scene. There will be a flurry of news stories. A burst of donations from the public will follow, with big funding announcements from governments. Depending on the profile of the emergency, after a few weeks, not much more, journalists will lose interest and donations will trickle off. Lather, rinse, repeat.

We're caught in Einstein's loop of insanity, delivering emergency assistance over and over but never getting the result we want: stopping people from dying of hunger.

An often-repeated statistic in the development community is that every dollar spent on prevention will save four dollars in emergency response. After the 2005 drought in the Horn of Africa, another study found that it had cost $80 a day to treat a malnourished child, but it would have only cost $1 a day to prevent the malnutrition in the first place with development programs.

We can't stop droughts from happening, but we can give communities the tools to survive so they are prepared.

The humanitarian news website AlertNet has released the results of a survey of 41 of many of the world's largest international aid organizations.

Sixteen of these agencies said that 10 per cent or less of their spending goes to projects that help communities prevent or reduce the risk of disasters. Fourteen more NGOs weren't even able to get the information to answer the question. In other words, a majority of organizations are not making a meaningful effort to help com-munities prepare for and survive disasters.

Some organizations have made prevention a priority, and have had an impact because of it. In 1984, the famine in Ethiopia killed more than 400,000 people. Since 1984, these organizations have helped communities in the region become more prepared and resilient to drought. As a result, this time the drought affected more countries but the death toll was much lower.

Twenty-five of those NGOs polled by AlertNet said they would like to increase their disaster prevention work, if they can find the funding.

So what's the problem? "Funding for disaster risk reduction and disaster preparedness is not very 'sexy' for donors - global, domestic and private," says Jouni Hemberg of FinnChurchAid, Finland's largest development organization, in the AlertNet report.

The 2011 Millennial Donors Report by U.S. fundraising firm Achieve found that 77 per cent of people who give to charity would be at least somewhat likely to stop giving money if they didn't know what impact their money was having.

Delivering food and water has an obvious impact. When you donate to support emergency relief, you know exactly how your money is going to save lives.

You can save more lives more effectively by helping communities prepare to survive a drought, than by rushing in with emergency aid after the drought has started.

In every disaster, all the ads from aid groups say: "NOW is the time to give!" and "We need your donations more than ever!" What's the message behind this urgency? That it's more important to give to emergency aid than ongoing development that could pre-vent the emergency?

Let's turn it on its head. Why not buy the full-page newspaper ad after the drought, saying by giving now, you are ensuring no one starves during the next drought. Aid groups then need to do a much better job of explaining the impact of prevention work to their donors.

With the effects of climate change, disasters are only going to become more frequent. In regions like the Horn of Africa, where droughts used to come every five to seven years, now they're coming every two to three. We will fail if we keep trying to do the same old emergency response and expect different results.

An ounce of prevention really is going to be worth a pound of cure.


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