03/01/2012 11:37 EST | Updated 04/30/2012 05:12 EDT

Starve, Get Aid, Repeat


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

On Friday, February 3, the United Nations declared the famine over in Somalia. 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 one dollar 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 and don't starve when the drought strikes.

The humanitarian news website AlertNet has released the results of a survey of 41 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 get the information to answer the question. In other words, a majority of organizations are not making a meaningful effort to help communities 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. When we give money to a charity, we want to know where that money is going, and what difference it is going to make.

Delivering food and water to tens of thousands of families, as most organizations do in an emergency, has an obvious impact. When you donate to support emergency relief, you know exactly how your money is going to save lives.

Teaching sustainable farming practices or supporting local governments to manage water resources better -- that's a little more complex and the impact isn't quite so obvious and immediate. Come the next drought, less people will need us to deliver emergency food and water.

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 and people are already dying.

However, many organizations are sending donors the exact opposite message with their marketing.

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 prevent the emergency in the first place.

Let's turn it on its head. Why not buy the full-page newspaper ad after the drought, saying now is when we need your donations the most. 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.

Working with communities to prepare for disasters will save more lives, and will be a much more effective use of our aid dollars.

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