When donors plan for contingencies
by Laura Hammond June 2003

Since 1999, recurrent drought has devastated Ethiopia’s agricultural and pastoral communities, while conflict with neighbouring Eritrea has left an estimated 350,000 Ethiopians displaced. In this context USAID’s contingency planning has been instrumental in allowing for a quick response, averting still-greater crisis.

When disaster strikes in Africa, with its media images of starving children or the war-wounded, the first question usually asked is why the humanitarian community did not see it coming. In truth, crises do not usually happen suddenly, and do not take aid agencies by surprise. Early-warning systems in place throughout Africa warn of climatic conditions that portend drought or flood, and field reports by government, NGO and UN agencies usually provide ample warning, allowing for assistance in time to prevent the situation from spiraling out of control. The biggest problem is that there is often a gap between early-warning and response mechanisms such that the warnings are never acted upon. Contingency planning can bridge this gap by preparing decision-makers well in advance of the actual emergency.

Contingency planning: famine in Ethiopia

Ethiopia has become synonymous with food shortages. Devastating famines in 1973–74 and 1984–85 received massive public attention. There were smaller-scale but still serious shortages in 1991 and 1994. Over the past four years, the main pastoral and the minor agricultural rains have failed. In 1999 and 2000, as people’s coping strategies became exhausted, herds were devastated and food stocks depleted.

The Ethiopian government has attempted to meet food needs for the coming calendar year by issuing annual appeals for emergency assistance every December/January, with an update based on the performance of the early rains, which is issued in June/July. Typically, there is a gap of between three and four months between the time a donor pledges food and its arrival in Ethiopia. Most of Ethiopia’s previous food shortages were caused by the failure of the long agricultural season in the highlands. For these emergencies, the timing of the government’s appeal is appropriate, since even farmers who have had a poor harvest have produced enough food to support their households for the first few months of the year. By contrast, people affected by the emergency which began in early 1999 were pastoralists and farmers dependent upon the minor agricultural rains; they required food aid during the first quarter of the year. Waiting for the government’s annual appeal before beginning to mobilise pledges would have meant that this aid would not have arrived until May or June, even if there had been no delays in transporting it. Continuous contingency planning and monitoring were thus necessary to ensure that pledges were made early enough to help those in greatest need.

Since late 1998, USAID-Ethiopia has been developing a series of contingency plans for drought response. These plans have served the following purposes:

  • to propose strategic guidelines for the US government to make timely donations of both food and non-food assistance;
  • to provide a country-wide analysis and possible scenarios of the impact of rains on production in both the agricultural and pastoral sectors;
  • to identify the steps to be taken in the event of either improving or worsening conditions; and
  • to use in briefing visits by senior officials, as well as field technicians.

Although it is not always possible to predict exactly what will happen six months or more in the future, the process of compiling these plans has helped to increase preparedness for, and awareness of, the nature of the risks confronting Ethiopia. Contingency planning has given the US government early indications of likely food needs, helping to avert a breakdown in the food-supply pipeline. In the final months of 2000, for example, donors were already working to identify resources that could be made available between January and March this year – the time they are most needed by those primarily affected by the most recent emergency. Once a pledge is confirmed in writing, it can be used as a promissory note to borrow from Ethiopia’s Food Security Reserve (EFSR), which acts as a food bank. When at full capacity, the EFSR has a stock of approximately 400,000 metric tonnes of grain. By borrowing from the Reserve, food can be made available immediately, and when the pledged food arrives, it is used to ‘reimburse’ the EFSR for the loan withdrawn earlier. If there is a delay in delivering the pledge, the EFSR’s stocks drop and its ability to lend food against additional pledges becomes limited. This occurred in late 1999–early 2000. Thus, the Reserve can buy only a few months’ time in terms of making food available for early distribution.

In compiling its contingency plans, USAID has consulted agencies involved in early warning, including the USAID-sponsored Famine Early Warning System (FEWS), the Ethiopian government’s National Meteorological Services Agency, the Regional Drought Monitoring Centre based in Nairobi, the World Food Programme’s Vulnerability Assessment Mapping Unit and other UN agencies. Other donors have also been consulted about their understanding of the situation, as well as their funding intentions. USAID implementing partners are constantly asked about conditions on the ground, and programmes are monitored for their effectiveness and to identify ways of strengthening them. Each plan typically outlines projections of the impact that a positive or negative rainfall season would have on each major beneficiary group. The plan can then be referred to during the period when rains are expected so as to determine specific resource requirements.

A typical framework, taken from the March 2000 Contingency Plan, is shown below.


In 2000, the early rains failed for the third (and in some places the fourth) time. This resulted in severe food insecurity, and people migrated into the towns in search of waged labour and relief food. A massive emergency operation was launched to provide food, water and medical support to the affected populations. The US government was the largest donor, contributing over 600,000 tonnes of food by the end of 2000.

The contingency plans produced in November 1999 and March, June and August 2000 identified immediate actions to be taken in the areas of food and non-food support. They also provided information on the types of activities that were ongoing, and the implementing partners that could be called on for particular kinds of action.

It would be naïve to say that the US government was ready to respond purely as a result of its contingency plans. Several high-level delegations came to Ethiopia to assess the situation for themselves, and their visits attracted attention from the media. They also sparked immediate responses, as in March 2000 when the USAID Assistant Administrator ordered an airlift of supplementary food items to Gode Zone in Somali Region after seeing first-hand the seriousness of the situation there.

Effective responses still require that those in a position to make a difference actually respond to the warnings and requests for resources that they receive. Countries such as Ethiopia, where every year seems to bring a new disaster, have difficulty capturing the attention of those who decide on the donations. Donors feel that their assistance will not prevent famine from recurring – since most assistance is emergency relief and does not tackle the root causes of food insecurity – and thus that there is little point in committing large amounts of resources to a situation which shows little hope of correcting itself.

Still, the contingency plans have helped to synthesise information into a formula for action that decision-makers can easily digest and use. They were also shared widely with the UN, NGOs, other donors and the Ethiopian government in an attempt to consolidate strategies and identify needs that others besides the US government could address. Finally, the contingency-planning exercises have also been useful in guiding planning for recovery and development.

All recovery and rehabilitation activities proposed in the contingency plans are aimed at reducing vulnerability to future natural disasters by increasing the purchasing power of the most severely affected people, and carrying out works that address environmental and economic challenges to greater food security – the root causes of vulnerability.

Contingency planning: the Eritrea–Ethiopia conflict

The war between Ethiopia and Eritrea which began in 1998 resulted in the internal displacement of an estimated 350,000 Ethiopians from border areas, and nearly twice that number in Eritrea.

In September 2000, USAID carried out a different kind of contingency plan, one which concerned meeting the immediate and medium-term needs of conflict-affected areas and people in Ethiopia. Following the end of the two-year war, the way was opened for those who had been displaced from their homes to be returned. However, the proliferation of landmines and unexploded ordnance in areas close to the border, the destruction of houses and public buildings, the loss of personal property and the lack of economic opportunities as a result of the closed border all represented significant obstacles to return in many areas.

The contingency plan examined the possibilities of providing assistance to overcome these obstacles under four different scenarios:

  • most likely situation: tense and fragile peace prevails;
  • best-case scenario: quick resolution of the conflict and a return to friendly relations between the two countries;
  • protracted stalemate; and
  • worst case: resumption of hostilities.

The process of compiling the plan involved all sections of the USAID mission, as sectoral development offices were tasked with identifying resources that could be reprogrammed or redirected to meet the activities outlined under each scenario. This brought those who traditionally had not had an input into emergency programming into closer contact with immediate priorities in the programming areas, and also made relief planning more development-oriented. Since the plan was finalised, steps have been taken to implement recovery and rehabilitation measures in the affected areas.

Contingency plans have helped to highlight needs in remote areas where government capacity is limited, and to mobilise responses that might otherwise not have been forthcoming. Ultimately, contingency plans can only be as successful as those who commission them want them to be, and the work of one donor is seldom enough to avert a major crisis. For every plan that succeeds in mobilising support for emergency and recovery operations, many more end up on shelves, unread. However, if contingency planning is carried out seriously, and its results shared with all stakeholders, it can prove a valuable tool in identifying priorities and resources for collaborative action.

Laura Hammond has lived and worked in Ethiopia since 1993. In 2000 and 2001, she was contingency-planning consultant for USAID-Ethiopia.