I have been coming to Southern Africa and witnessing many changes here for more than three decades. My first visit coincided with those heady days following Madiba’s release and the birth of the “rainbow nation”. The air was thick with glory and hope of newborn liberty. Nothing looked impossible; old challenges presented new opportunities for change. So much has changed since; so much for the better. Yet livelihoods, livestock and ways of life seem still to wait for their fair share.
Over the past few months, I signed off on a series of emergency funding and appeals to support Red Cross societies in Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe in response to floods, which in this part of the world do not, unfortunately, generate a lot of media interest globally, even though they were devastating for hundreds of thousands of people, robbing them of their homes and livelihoods.
It seems especially unfair, then, that the region now facing another bout of drought and a very real risk of further food insecurity and hunger. The rains have more or less failed here in South Africa, in Angola, Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Even in Malawi and northern Mozambique, rainfall was heavily concentrated; communities painfully watch their crops fail.
It is unfair, but it is not unfamiliar. This cycle of flood-drought-hunger is part of the landscape in Southern Africa ndash; part of a challenging reality for people living here. It is a reality humanitarian agencies and governments plan and budget for. Every year, the rains either come too hard or at the wrong time or not at all. Crops fail, food prices climb and governments and aid agencies react and try to respond.
If, every year, people suffer the effects of floods and drought, and we respond just enough to help them survive and gather their strength for the next challenge, then are we really doing enough?
Our goal must be to accompany and support people in their efforts to mitigate and withstand these predictable threats, to become more resilient, not just for the current emergency, but also for the next challenges they will face. This calls for a change in the way we understand and do our work. It is not enough to swoop in when a disaster hits, or when a food crisis looms, and hand out assistance. We need to be there alongside people at all times, during times of peace, as well as during disasters and crises.
We need to work along a continuum, accompanying them to address their needs, surging in support when circumstances dictate, and looking to sow the seeds of capacity and resilience. If our support stops when emergency funding dries up, and people are relegated back into that perpetual cycle of vulnerability and dependence, then the virtue of our response must be questioned.
The Red Cross’s response builds on local knowledge and capacity. Our volunteers and staff come from the communities they serve. They speak the languages, understand the cultures, share the fears and often were affected by the same kinds of disasters. They are there when the floods hit and they stay to build back better.
But they need better support from this region. Already, funding from traditional international donors isn’t enough. It is stretched too far by crises such as the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, or protracted conflict in Syria, South Sudan, the Central African Republic and elsewhere. High profile emergencies, such as the Nepal earthquake, do not receive the financial support they once did. More resources must come from governments and private sectors.
National Red Cross societies work hard to create financial lifelines and break dependence on global support.
If we are to stay ahead of growing humanitarian challenges, and support people by breaking the vicious cycle of disaster-response-recovery-disaster, we need to drive resources down to local level. We have seen this work along the Zambezi River where the seven Red Cross societies that share the shores of the river work with people living there to address the predictable risks they face. They are better able to withstand the shocks that come their way, and have been able to strengthen their livelihoods.
This approach’s value goes beyond disasters. The humanitarian landscape in Southern Africa is more complex than droughts and floods. It is underwritten by widening socioeconomic disparities ndash; the growing shame of poverty, suffering and de-gradation that Thabo Mbeki spoke of in 1996 ndash; and the anger, disaffection and violence flowing from it.
Investing in local people will address multiple deprivations and challenges. For example, when thousands of people were forced to run for their lives in the face of xenophobic violence, South African Red Cross society volunteers provided care and support. Across the country, Red Cross volunteers live and work alongside people living with tuberculosis and HIV, supporting them through their treatment. They mobilise their communities to prevent new infections and reduce stigma.
In the next few months, governments signs off on the new generation of development goals. These goals aim to end poverty, reduce vulnerability and spread the benefits of economic and technological development to all. That will only be possible if resources are put where they are needed most: at the local level. As always, the Red Cross will remain to walk the last mile to the most vulnerable and hardest to reach.
Elhadj As Sy is secretary general of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent societies