WFP Response to Hurricane Mitch: A New Approach
by Abraham de Kock, Evaluation Office, WFP, Rome December 2000

Though each has a distinctive character, the countries of Central America also have several common traits. They are, periodically, exposed to a range of natural hazards such as hurricanes, tropical storms, floods, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. Moreover, these hazards may, as in the case of Mitch, simultaneously affect more than one country. The countries concerned also share socioeconomic and ecological features, notably pervasive structural poverty and environmentally sensitive steep lands. These factors made it appropriate for WFP to adopt a regionally focused emergency operation that was distinctively different from the ordinary single, country-based programmes and interventions normally generated by other UN organisations.

Within this regional approach WFP ensured it was possible to incorporate modifications to meet the needs of each country. This flexibility at the country level was required to finetune planning and implementation of relief activities in the light of country-specific realities, including vital partnership arrangements with national governments, local institutions and other international aid providers. Moreover, the ongoing decentralisation of the administrative structure of Rome-based WFP has led to the establishment of a regional office in Managua (Nicaragua). The presence of this regional office within the disaster area allowed for rapid, well-informed decision-making by a regional director and his team.

Benefits of the Regional Approach

Several benefits have become apparent:

  • Economies of scale were realised through regional purchases of food and equipment.
  • A regional bank account allowed for rapid purchases and transfers of funds needed.
  • Regionally-based specialists within the area made frequent visits to provide backstopping to the individual country offices.
  • Issues of common interest and experiences on good practice were exchanged increasing the overall effectiveness and efficiency of the regional EMOP among the four countries.

The same regional approach is recommended when a WFP response is required to meet future urgent food needs of people affected by disasters which transcend the national borders.

New Policy Directions

WFP has recently committed itself to new policy directions with the aim of promoting the best possible use of food aid in support of development efforts to bring about sustainable food security among the hungry poor. Food aid should hence be limited to supporting interventions which will create lasting physical and human assets, benefiting poor, food-insecure households. Mitigating the effects of natural disaster in areas vulnerable to recurring crises of this kind is among the principal programming priorities adopted within this ‘enabling development’ policy. The potential role of food aid should be explored in supporting environmentally sound initiatives by communities in highland and protected areas. An example within the Central American region is the Lempa river basin which spans three countries in the region (El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala). To adequately address the environmental vulnerability of this river basin a more integrated approach is required, both within and between countries. Being a major provider of relief aid, WFP could use its leverage to encourage and support regional environmental initiatives where issues span more than one country. In addition, WFP should consider strategic involvement in policy discussions at national and regional level on land-use planning in order to influence the development of policies which would contribute to reducing Central America’s vulnerability to natural disasters.

Such strategic alliances are sought with UN sister agencies and other development partners, in particular NGOs. Within UN inter-agency disaster prevention groups, measures are being reviewed to better respond to unpredictable hazards. Vulnerability Assessment Mapping (VAM) units are being established by WFP in conjunction with other UN agencies (FAO, WHO) and national institutions. Information generated by these units contributes to the effective programming of activities geared towards reducing environmental vulnerability, and establishing contingency planning in anticipation of disasters.

Finally, WFP could encourage other international agencies to also consider adopting a regional approach when programming a response to emergencies which simultaneously affect more than one country. The benefits derived from such an approach could thus be maximised.

For further reference, see Evaluation Report: Summary Evaluation of Emergency Operation – Central America 6079.00 (‘Emergency food assistance to households affected by Hurricane Mitch’). This document can be obtained through the Executive Board Documents on the WFP website: www.wfp.org