Attention to livelihoods in emergencies is the most effective and dignified response that we can possibly mount: FAO Emergencies Chief
19 April 2023, Rome: The COVID-19 pandemic, the climate crisis, environmental degradation, biodiversity loss, and conflicts have created significant food security challenges worldwide in the past years. Currently, millions of people around the world need urgent support in over 45 countries.
But just providing food aid isn’t enough to tackle the growing hunger crisis, explains Rein Paulsen, the Director of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) Office of Emergencies and Resilience.
During an interview with FAO Newsroom, Paulsen discusses critical concerns within the global humanitarian landscape and highlights the importance of proactive measures and investments that support local food production and enhance the resilience of agriculture in hunger hotspots.
You have managed many of the largest humanitarian and emergency programmes in the world. How has the humanitarian landscape changed in the last decades?
Probably one of the most visible changes, quite frankly, is the explosion, the mushrooming, and the growth in the number of people in need of urgent assistance.
The Global Humanitarian Overview — a joint appeal coordinated by the United Nations, together with partners, including FAO— launched at the end of last year an appeal to support some 230 million people. These numbers quite frankly are eye-watering and they tell us that we need to do not just more, but we need to do it better.
What has been the biggest lesson that you have learned in your work in global emergencies?
There are a number of key lessons, but I would like to focus on the resilience that exists at the household level and in communities and the remarkable ability of people – even in the most extreme disaster situations – to cope, survive, and adapt.
For us as FAO, a key message that we want to share with everyone is the fact that most people in need of humanitarian assistance are to be found in rural areas. These are farmers. These are people who are attached to the land, or they are fisherfolk. So that’s the starting point we need for our emergency response.
What does emergency agricultural aid to farmers or fisherfolk look like?
Fundamentally, it’s about putting resources in the hands of affected farming families.
This means – for example – seeds, tools, and technical assistance to allow them to plant for the upcoming season. It means keeping animals alive during a drought period or during winter and we do that through the provision of emergency animal feed and even veterinary assistance. Often, it is also about just putting cash in the hands of people.
These activities together are usually what people need to get through a difficult period when we are talking about farming families.
For example, I was in Afghanistan in early February. Just last year alone, FAO with some 21 implementing partners directly supported more than 6 million rural Afghans with time-sensitive interventions. We have been keeping animals alive through the winter season, we also provide cash support to female-headed households and marginalized families that even don’t have access to a lot of land.
We focus on what they can do in their backyards with vegetables and with animal protein interventions, for example with chickens. These are very tangible activities that make a difference in a situation where you have acute food insecurity for a rural population.
For $220 we [also] provide enough wheat seeds to produce their cereal requirements for a 12-month period in Afghanistan. We provide seeds that are of better quality for the coming years ahead. So, this isn’t just about a handout, this is about doing something much more impactful.
How could potential emergency food crisis situations be avoided through proactive approaches?
To give you an example, FAO was pivotal in successfully leading in support of several governments to prevent and respond to the major desert locust outbreak that hit much of the Horn of Africa, Eastern Africa and beyond.
Early detection treatment allowed us to respond at scale. This was a response over two years that cost about $230 million and saved at least $1.8 billion in crop losses. It makes sense.
Why wait to respond until the disaster happens? Who would rather wait for a handout or assistance after a disaster hits than be able to anticipate and protect themselves and their families?
FAO’s strengths in humanitarian response come from its development background. We are grounded in communities and countries. We have long-standing relationships with ministries of agriculture. If we distribute a seed in a country, we know it is the right seed because we’ve been improving it over years.
People always want a means to look after themselves. This attention to livelihoods in emergencies is absolutely indispensable. It is a cost-effective way to respond. It is a dignified way to support individuals affected by disasters. And let’s also remember that not only do we provide means for families to eat in the weeks and months ahead, but we also strengthen their resilience against future disasters.
Is there enough funding currently going to agricultural assistance in emergencies?
In a food crisis context, more than 70 per cent of affected people live in rural communities. These are farmers and fisherfolk, and yet only 4 per cent of all the humanitarian response funding that goes into those protracted emergency settings supports agriculture.
So, you have a majority of the population relying on farming, and a minority of the funding to support agricultural response activities. This just simply doesn’t make sense. Attention to livelihoods in emergencies is indispensable. It’s a cost-effective way to respond. It’s a dignified way to support individuals affected by disasters.
We also respond after what we call “sudden onset events”. For example, the tragedy that we have seen now with the earthquake impacting both Türkiye and Syria. This is also part of what we do, and it needs a time-sensitive response.
But the majority of what FAO does in emergency response is a year-on-year crisis response. This is where we need to be working – and this is why we need to work differently.
There’s a recent U.N. study that says that some 43 000 people might have died last year in Somalia due to the drought. How does agricultural support save both livelihoods and lives?
FAO and other partners in the UN system back in late 2021 were calling for a scaled-up response in the region because we saw that rains were failing and indeed that communities and vulnerable households were under stress.
And I think, unfortunately, what we are seeing in the Horn of Africa is an example of early warning analysis and anticipatory action calls going unheeded. Somalia is a good example of where a time-sensitive agricultural intervention would have enabled a family to be able to stay on their land, to not be forced to displace to a camp outside of an urban setting.
Our experience in Somalia and elsewhere tells us that if people’s animals remain alive, if they have crops in the ground, if they’ve been able to plant seeds, if there are things to tend to, often they will not be forced to flee elsewhere.
This is the most effective and dignified response that we can possibly mount.
In conflict-related emergencies, how does FAO support populations?
FAO is a technical agency with a unique mandate within the UN system. The way we work in conflict settings is grounded in our technical expertise. Each country context and each situation is different.
Let me give an example from Tigray. Last year there was a lot of concern about the threat of famine. FAO of course was working in Tigray, and working across Ethiopia, before the conflict and the fighting erupted.
In a context where there is conflict unfolding, people were still able to grow crops. Farmers in Tigray, with support from FAO and others, produced 900,000 metric tons of food; that is the equivalent of 6 to 7 months of the food requirements of that region of the world.
Even in the most challenging circumstances, we are still able, with these time-sensitive interventions, to allow people to provide for themselves
How does FAO support countries in the case of global outbreaks such as the COVID-19 pandemic?
I think there are some really important lessons, collectively, that I hope we have learned when it comes to the reality of the interface between humans and animals, and the natural environment.
These diseases that can move between animals and humans can challenge food chains, but can also potentially impact humans directly, as well. FAO works day in and day out with other parts of the UN system and other partners in this space of animal health.
In the last 12 months, FAO prevented and responded to some 990 significant outbreaks of zoonoses（1）. If you didn’t hear much about it, it’s because FAO did a good job. This prevention of the next COVID, is really important.
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