[Originally posted on USAID's Impact Blog, September 25, 2012.]
Last summer, amidst the Horn of Africa’s worst drought in generations, Mercy Corps received encouraging news from local officials in the Somali-Oromiya region of Ethiopia. In this area — long known for conflict, scarce resources and harsh conditions — communities that had participated in USAID-supported Mercy Corps peacebuilding efforts were reportedly coping better than they had during less severe droughts in the past.
We were intrigued, so we sent out a research team — and the findings were striking: When local conflict had been addressed, people were far better equipped to survive the drought.
To understand why, put yourself in the position of an Ethiopian herder. When a drought hits, you can cope in several ways. First, you will sell the weakest animals in your herd, raising cash to meet your family’s short-term needs while reducing grazing pressure on a water-scare environment. You may migrate with the remaining herd to areas where the grazing potential is better. Along the way, you will rely on sharing access to scarce remaining water resources wherever you go.
Yet conflict can make these coping mechanisms impossible, blocking market access, freedom of movement, and access to shared resources like water. In this part of Ethiopia, population pressure and climate change had strained resources, spurring violence that in 2008-09 resulted in massive loss of lives and assets.
In response to that conflict, Mercy Corps initiated a peacebuilding process in 2009 with support from USAID. We helped participating communities focus on establishing peaceful relations, economic linkages and joint management of natural resources.
A “resilience” approach to aid focuses on understanding, and improving, how communities cope with drought and other shocks. Instead of just providing assistance that meets immediate material needs, a resilience approach also focuses on factors that affect a community’s ability to cope. As Mercy Corps found last summer in Ethiopia, this often means focusing on factors that fall well outside the traditional assistance toolkit.
The program had focused on reducing violence, but our researchers found that it also built resilience along the way. Communities that participated in Mercy Corps’ program reported greater freedom of movement and fewer barriers to accessing resources, markets and public services than did non-participating communities. They identified greater freedom of movement as the single most important factor contributing to their ability to cope and adapt to the severe drought conditions.
As one herder from the Wachile community said, “It is very difficult to use or access dry reserves [grazing areas] located in contending communities in a situation where there is no peace…the peace dialogues in the area have improved community interaction and helped us to access these resources.”
Our research report, From Conflict to Coping, confirmed the important link between conflict and resilience in this region, and demonstrated that effective peacebuilding interventions help build resilience to crises.
How You Can Help
Our teams are still working to help families survive the drought and resulting hunger crisis in the Horn of Africa.
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