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Column: How to stop crises becoming disasters

On World Humanitarian Day, Concern Director in Kenya Anne O’Mahony writes from Nairobi on tackling the underlying causes of vulnerability to the worst effects of manmade and natural shocks.

Anne O'Mahony

WORLD HUMANITARIAN DAY (today) is a unique day each year where we reflect on what it means to assist people in need across the world.

Every year thousands of people are given life-saving assistance in the wake of disasters both natural and manmade such as floods, droughts and conflict. In Kenya, Concern has responded to these natural disasters, such as the worst drought in 60 years which devastated communities across the country last year.

While droughts and earthquakes are often the triggers to a humanitarian crisis, those most affected are always the poor. It is not a coincidence that disasters impact most in marginalised areas such as the slums of Haiti following an earthquake, or the arid lands of Kenya following a drought. People do not die in large numbers from an earthquake or drought. They die because poorly constructed buildings fall on them or lack of access to water kills their assets.

“Communities can take charge”

It does not have to be this way. Communities can take charge. They can build their resilience and the poorest can improve their lives, and protect themselves from the devastating effects of drought and other such shocks.

To do this, our staff and local partners are looking at new ways to help communities across Kenya find solutions to some of the underlying causes of vulnerability to disasters, to build resilience from the bottom up. We are using an approach called “Community Conversations”, which encourages communities to analyse the problems they face and find solutions to overcome these problems.

Communities work together utilising skills from within such as local leaders, traditional healers, local government officials, parents, business people, teachers, and health workers to form a task force and develop strategies to address these problems together as a team.

This approach has in some cases completely transformed the mindset of communities, who for too long felt they did not have the power to change their own future.

In Kenya, Concern is using this approach to build communities’ resilience to humanitarian disasters and our teams and partners have been working with some of the poorest pastoralists and communities who have lost animals and their means to make a living over a number of years. Through water catchment and irrigation schemes, communities have transformed what was once dry scrub land into vegetable plots providing their families with income and a more diversified diet.

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“They are transforming their own lives and futures”

The enthusiasm from communities for projects of which they can take ownership is obvious and through communities developing solutions to their long-term problems, they are transforming their own lives and futures.

However, it is not just the ability to grow adequate food even in times of drought which will improve nutrition or prevent malnutrition in humanitarian disasters. It is also about helping communities discover their positive coping strategies which will prevent children and the most vulnerable in the community from becoming malnourished. In our nutrition programme we bring entire communities together, not just mothers, to discover the root causes of malnutrition and look at how, even in times of crisis, they can ensure that malnutrition does not destroy lives.

Whole communities are engaging in good hygiene practices, for the community good. Early and exclusive breast feeding is making a welcome return to a majority of young mothers where Community Conversations is being practiced.

As humanitarians we know that while our role is to save lives when disaster hits, it is also our role to ensure communities have the tools to stop crises becoming disasters. Through our transformative work in Kenya, communities are starting to achieve just that.

Anne O’Mahony is Concern Worldwide’s Director in Kenya. You can read more about World Humanitarian Day here.

About the author:

Anne O'Mahony

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