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Climate-related disasters and their dire consequences on vulnerable population are forcing us to re-think humanitarian assistance. Increasingly, the support of relief agencies is requested in countries where they do not traditionally operate, putting further pressure on already limited resources to reduce poverty and end hunger.
One emerging solution is to transfer cash and with it technical knowledge, through existing national social protection systems to help them expand their capacity to respond to future shocks. The success of the emergency response in Dominica last year shows that a “shock-responsive social protection” model may be the way forward.
When Hurricane Maria, one of the most devastating to hit the Caribbean in over a decade, fell on the island of Dominica in September 2017, it killed 31 people and practically destroyed this small eco-paradise next to French Guadalupe and Martinique.
In the space of a few hours, most people were left without a roof, the country’s basic infrastructure was demolished, the electricity and telecommunication network stopped functioning and the main ports were blocked. It was an island under siege with a landscape reminiscent of a zone of war to use the words of Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit in his address to the United Nations’ General Assembly after the disaster struck.
No one in the humanitarian community expected Dominica to be hit so severely as to need significant international assistance. The island is an upper-middle income country with tourism revenues, where humanitarian relief and development agencies such as the World Food Programme did not have a presence.
However, considering the scale of the destruction, the government called for support in assisting its most affected people. Expecting Haiti to be hit, WFP had built up a stock of emergency relief supplies there and following Hurricane Irma which hit the Caribbean just days before Maria, a logistic hub was established in Antigua, both of which became essential when Maria hit Dominica. High-energy biscuits and then more complete in-kind food rations were initially distributed, the transport infrastructure and supply chain were re-established, and the telecom network restarted.
A month later, a joint cash transfer programme was established between the Ministry of Social Services, Family and Gender Affairs (MSSFGA) and WFP to provide cash to almost 25,000 people (nearly 40 percent of the population) through an existing social protection mechanism known as the Public Assistance Programme (PAP), which gives regular support to the most vulnerable people.
Top-up funds were given to all the beneficiaries already registered in the PAP programme, and additional funds were allocated to the most affected population not previously enrolled in PAP. The transfer value was calculated by taking into consideration the average family size, the monthly cost of the minimum food basket and, by partnering with UNICEF the cost of providing children with sufficient and nutritious food, as well as clothes, hygiene, education and any other basic need. That helped people begin the long process of return to a normal life. Total cash transfers from WFP amounted to US$3 million over four months in addition to the US$790,000 provided by the Government and US$700,000 by UNICEF to cover the specific needs of children.
WFP had already implemented and advocated for this shock-responsive social protection approach before in the Latin America region, and now in the Caribbean it has identified a need for technical assistance at the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency (CDEMA), an established inter-governmental cooperation mechanism with 18 participating States. Consequently, it started a sub-regional project focused on four main areas of support: information management and analysis, end-to-end supply chain management and emergency telecommunications, shock responsive social protection and climate change adaptation and risk financing.
To quote again Prime Minister Skerrit, “before this century no other generation had seen more than one category 5 hurricane in their lifetime. In this century, this has happened twice and notably it has happened in the space of just two weeks”. Unfortunately, we won’t prevent hurricanes from occurring, but we can ensure that their impact on people is reduced, and we can do that by investing in preparedness of government systems.
Regis Chapman is head of office, World Food Programme (WFP) Barbados (Caribbean Preparedness and Response)