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Funding for Nutrition Only Comes During Emergencies: Save the Children

Save the Children vice president of health and nutrition Robert Clay and nutrition director Habtamu Fekadu say donors’ preference to fund emergencies over long-term development work thwarts sustainable development.

Written by Amruta Byatnal Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes
8-year-old Khadar* waits for food and milk with others at the Yemeni Refugees and Returnees reception centre in Bosaso, Puntland.Save the Children

It’s easier to raise money for emergencies than for long-term development work in the nutrition sector in fragile countries, according to Save the Children executives. Vice president of health and nutrition Robert Clay and nutrition director Habtamu Fekadu say the short-sightedness of funding agencies makes it difficult to transition the efforts into sustainable programs.

“We have to live with the reality that funding is often sporadic and comes only when acute episodes happen,” said Clay.

In a situation like this, organizations face a tough dilemma – how to best ensure that people could survive the devastating impact of emergencies while implementing a program that would be sustainable in the long run?

Clay and Fekadu spoke to Malnutrition Deeply about the strategy and programs Save the Children uses to ensure that neither emergency needs nor structural progress is compromised.

Malnutrition Deeply: Does funding affect working towards sustainable progress on nutrition outcomes in vulnerable communities, as opposed to getting aid to people in times of emergencies?

Robert Clay: One of the big challenges that groups like Save the Children face is that it’s easier to raise money for an emergency. When you see something is on the television, you get lots of resources. So you can fund the emergency side, but trying to move it to development so that it doesn’t happen again is hard. People aren’t interested in the long-term effects, and it’s very short-sighted, but we have to live with the reality that funding is often sporadic and comes only when acute episodes happen. However, this affects the long-term sustainability issues.

Malnutrition Deeply: Is this an issue in every sector?

Clay: This is an issue that cuts across all fields, and not just nutrition. We see it after every emergency and pandemic. Particularly if it’s some disease that affects the U.S., there is lots of outrage and focus, and hence more funding. The preventive measures to address these issues don’t get the same amount of funding. In terms of Save the Children, over 50 percent our expenditures were on the emergency side. This is an area where people are responding to the crisis and not to the longer-term issues. With enough advocacy and media attention, this can change.

Malnutrition Deeply: For organizations like Save the Children, is there a conscious effort to separate humanitarian and long-term development efforts when it comes to nutrition?

Clay: This is a critical issue in the field. Historically development and humanitarian assistance have been quite separate, but we are making a conscious effort to break down these barriers. What we are finding is more and more countries we are doing development work in are part of the fragile states and they have emergencies all the time. So these are operating at the same place and many times, together. We have an emergency health and nutrition team that deploys in natural and man-made disasters, but we’re undertaking a lot of activities to integrate them much more with our nutrition work.

This works both ways. As we are doing our emergency work, we think about what capacities will be needed in the longer term so we don’t set up unsustainable approaches, and we try to use the existing infrastructure to strengthen the country approach. And then on the reverse side, when we are doing long-term work, we need to make sure that we have the resilience to respond to emergencies.

Malnutrition Deeply: Could you give an example of how a structure can be put in place to ensure that the work done in emergencies can be sustainable?

Habtamu Fekadu: Ethiopia faced a major drought in 2016, the effects of which could be felt in 2017, too. The government leads the Emergency Nutrition Coordination Unit with different agencies and implementing partners, of which Save the Children was part. The unit decides on prioritizing areas that are affected by drought and identify the needs for that specific region. And they decide if it needs emergency or development work. This is the largest coordination platform in the country.

When you go down to the implementation level, development work might be affected by emergencies – in a program I was managing, 60 out of 100 districts were affected by the El Nino effect. For six to seven months, they were protected by the investment of development, and then [an] emergency nutrition response came in. We provided support in expanding the community management for fighting the drought and providing seeds that are drought resistant so that households can produce food immediately.

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