Press Conference with Jeremy Konydnyk

Jeremy Konyndyk
Director, USAID’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance
Moderator: David Kennedy
Public Affairs Officer at U.S. Embassy
Marriot Hotel, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Moderator:  I’m with the U.S. Embassy.  Thank you for coming today.  We’re very pleased to have Jeremy Konyndyk.  He’s the Director of USAID’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance.  He has been here for several days focusing on the U.S. humanitarian response to the current drought in Ethiopia.  So the press conference will be focusing on that and his visit.

Without further ado, I’d like to pass it over to Jeremy who will say a couple of words and then we’ll facilitate some questions.  But please keep your questions focused on the drought issue and the humanitarian response issue because that’s what we’re here prepared to answer.  Thank you very much.

Director Konyndyk:  Thank you.  Thank you all for coming to hear about this important topic.  I want to convey our thanks at the top to the government of Ethiopia for hosting a very useful visit and for the broader partnership that we’ve had together for many many years and the strong partnership that we have together on this response to the drought.

Thanks as well to our partners from the United Nations and the NGO community who are doing really tremendous and heroic work supporting the response to this drought.

This drought is unquestionably a disaster.  It is not necessarily a catastrophe.  And let me explain what I mean by that.

A disaster can be something that happens.  It can be an earthquake, a typhoon or this case a drought.  What makes that a catastrophe or doesn’t depends on the response and how it is managed when it happens.

So we are very confident that this disaster need not become a catastrophe.  It will take a lot of work, it will take a lot of effort, but it is entirely possible to ensure that we do not see severe, catastrophic outcomes due to this drought.  That will be a huge challenge.  This drought is massive.  It is the worst drought in 50 years in most of this country.  When we were out in Tigray yesterday we spoke with many people living in communities there who told us this was the worst drought they had ever seen in their lives — worse in many cases than the conditions that their areas had seen in 1983, 1984.  And yet we also know that the outcomes of this drought don’t need to look like the outcomes in 1984.  There are a few reasons for that.

First, we see this coming.  We’ve seen this coming.  The U.S. and the government and some of our humanitarian partners have been gearing up a response since last fall.  We began scaling up U.S. assistance in the fall and we elevated that last month with the deployment of a U.S. Disaster Assistance Response Team, or DART, some of the members of which have joined here.

And even though this drought will be more severe, we have far better capability to manage this kind of a situation than we had 30 years ago.

A few key differences.  We have seen very clear leadership by the government of Ethiopia in tackling this drought.  So I had a number of meetings with government officials.  I met with the Deputy Prime Minister earlier this week.  I met with Commissioner Mitiku and we met with the senior leadership of Tigray state including the president of the state, of the region, excuse me.  I saw across the board a strong, strong political will, strong commitment to ensuring that this does not become a catastrophe.  And we have seen the government stepping up in really impressive ways.  Putting in hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars from the Ethiopian national budget to support this response.  Working closely with UN and NGO partners.  Working closely with us as a donor government.

We also, in terms of the humanitarian response side, have capacity and expertise that we did not have 30 years ago.  We know much more about how to combat a drought.  We have techniques and technologies we did not have.  We have specialized feeding products.  We have greatly developed malnutrition treatment approaches that are managed at the community level.  And we have a much more capable humanitarian response architecture than we had then.  So this, we have the tools that we all collectively need to get this done.

However, it’s not an inevitability.  Success is not inevitable.  It takes hard work.  It will take a lot more work from everyone.

So the U.S. has, amongst the international donor community, led the way.  We’ve provided more than half a billion U.S. dollars of assistance over the last 18 months towards this crisis.  We have been encouraging other donors to do more.  We’ve been working with the government.  The government has stepped up in a big way.  So there is a lot being done, there’s a lot that’s been achieved, there’s a lot that’s been in place.

I think we have to say that at this point we’re not fully there.  It’s not yet enough.  We all need to do a lot more.

This is a massive challenge.  The figure, the estimate of the people in need of relief are about, well they exceed 10 million and that’s the current projections.  We expect that the period over the summer will be the worst period, so there is a huge amount of preparation that we need to continue to do to be ready for that time.

We will need to do more, the government will need to do more, the donor community will need to do more.  Everyone, as much as we’re all stepping up, everyone will continue to need to do more, but it’s achievable.  We can get this done, we’re very confident in that.  We have to execute, we have to work hard.  We’re going to have to put more resources into the game.  We’ll need to see more donor resources, more government resources, but it’s achievable.

I come away from this both concerned at the depth and scale of the need here.  The scale of the challenge.  But also confident that we have tools that we know work.

When we were in Tigray yesterday we visited a government health post where the government was working closely with an NGO called GOAL to provide malnutrition support and treatment to community members.  And we know that if you catch those malnutrition cases early, if there’s good screening, catch them early, you can turn people around and get them healthy again.  We have tools to do that, they work really well.  And when you have a package that includes food distribution, clean water, strong malnutrition treatment and health care, that’s a very powerful package to prevent the most severe outcomes and we’re confident that it can be done.

Thank you.

Moderator:  Thank you very much, Jeremy.  I think we’ll take some questions.

Press:  Thank you very much.  I think this document — My name is Eskinder. I work for VOA Horn of Africa Service.

I see here that the HRD will be updated by the Ethiopian government and its partners.  Does this mean that, we already know that there are 10.2 million people in need of emergency food assistance?  And this number is likely to increase?

Director Konyndyk:  We’re still, ultimately the government sets that number and we’re supporting the government in that process.  The research is still ongoing.  I think certainly what we’ve seen in the field indicates that there is a huge amount of need out there and we haven’t seen the worst of it yet.  So a lot will depend on how the spring rains and then the summer rains go.  I think our sense is a probable or maybe a somewhat hopeful scenario is if we see fair spring rains.  That will help to alleviate some of the need in certain areas that rely on those rains.  But we won’t see a real reversal in needs until the fall.

And it’s going to be very important with the large summer rains to get seeds in the ground ahead of time so that that the all harvest can be robust.

The current projections are that the summer rains should be pretty good.  If they’re not, that obviously will increase needs.  If the spring Belg rains fail, that will increase needs.  So there are variables here that will affect that final figure.

Press:  Paul Shemm, Associated Press, Washington Post.

A lot of aid agencies were saying about a month or two ago that there’s a chance of the food pipeline breaking down because there wasn’t sufficient financial assistance.  What is the situation now?  Are we still in danger of that happening by about April?  That’s what the recent projection was.

And you mentioned that additional assistance would be needed from all donors.  What do we see coming additionally from the United States in addition to the half billion?

Director Konyndyk:  On the food pipeline issue, I think we are focusing on that.  We’ve also been talking with the Ethiopian government who are very keen to avoid that.  They’ve put in a lot of their own resources.  I’ll defer to them on what their plans would be for covering any break, but I think they’ve shown so far a real willingness to put up government resources to fill gaps in the response.

I think there is a concern generally about the capacity of the response system to handle the scale of what needs to be done now.  The numbers we’re seeing here are just absolutely huge.  So you’re looking at a response system that was built, the government has built the PSNP, which is one of the world’s premier safety net programs and it’s been a really tremendous program.  But that was built for eight million people, and we’re talking even now about an additional ten million may need emergency food over and above that.  So these are enormous numbers.  The amount of food you need to put in to fulfill that is enormous.

We are obviously very keen to avoid any kind of pipeline break and I think we will be able to avoid that but it’s going to take, again, people stepping up.

The U.S. has done a lot.  Not all donors have.  The U.S., we are teeing up further donations.  We don’t have anything to announce today.  Part of the purpose of my visit here today is to, or this week rather, was to assess what the needs look like and go back to Washington and determine what additional resources requirements there may be.

I can say certainly the U.S. is planning to do more and I know some of the other major donors are too.  But at the same time, there are a lot of donors who haven’t stepped up enough.  I’m not going to name them here, but — just to anticipate your question — but we’re doing a lot of outreach to our donor counterparts.

I think the message there is don’t wait until it’s a catastrophe to start funding.  That’s a clear lesson of food crises in the past — that the earlier the response scales up, the more good you can do.  And waiting until things have developed to a catastrophic state to begin engaging means you’ve already lost the battle.  So we need to be getting, as the U.S. has been doing, we need to see all the other donors stepping up now when the most good can be done.

Press:  Thank you.  Andualem Sisay.  I represent National Media Group.

My question is about lasting solution for such humanitarian crisis.  We’ve been in such a situation every three and four or five years, so what is your suggestion for a lasting solution to such crises?

Director Konyndyk:  That’s a great and a really important question.  To start with I’d say this is a really abnormal drought cycle, so this is not an every four or five-year drought.  This is an every 50 years drought.  And so it’s hard to build the system on an ongoing basis that is ready for the sort of scale of drought that we’re seeing now.  This is an extraordinarily strong global El Nino.  We’re seeing needs all over the world.  Ethiopia so far has had some of the most severe weather impacts of that, but southern Africa is suffering quite a lot as well now.

You can’t necessarily build a system that’s going to be ready for this scale because this is a once every 50 years phenomenon.

But I think much of what the Ethiopian government has been doing with the creation of the PSNP has really been a world model on how to build a system that is resilient to the normal ups and downs of rain cycles and droughts that you do see on an every four or five-year basis.

Another important piece of that on the international assistance side is a shift from an approach that was really centered on waiting for a crisis to happen and then providing relief to an approach that focuses development investments on the sort of factors that make people vulnerable to this kind of a crisis.

So for example, within our UASID development portfolio here, we have built in what we call crisis modifiers.  That’s basically within your development program you build in a tool and a stream of funding to address humanitarian needs that might emerge during the course of the program, and those programs also focus on the vulnerabilities that make people vulnerable to drought.  So some of the, it’s things like improving agricultural techniques, improving livestock management techniques, improving land use.  When we were driving through Tigray yesterday we saw a lot of public works projects, some of which had been funded by the PSNP amongst others, that focused on better rain water retention.  So there are a lot of things like that that can be done to improve the normal steady state vulnerability of the population.

But this is such an extraordinarily enormous drought that I don’t think there’s any, it’s hard to be prepared for this on a steady state basis.

Press:  Thank you very much again.

We know that 10.2 million people are in need of emergency food assistance and 1.4 billion USD’s are needed to address the needs of 10.2 million people.  What is the priority now?  I mean we know that 200 [inaudible] million USD’s [inaudible].  What will be the priority for you?

Director Konyndyk:  That’s a great question.

Press:  My other question is there are also 8 million people on the PSNP.  You mentioned the 10.2 million receiving humanitarian (inaudible].  How do you coordinate those programs?

Director Konyndyk:  In terms of the current priority, there are, we’re thinking about this in terms of building a series of firewalls.  That’s a term we’d use in the States.  I don’t know if there’s a good equivalent here.  But basically this idea that there are protections that you can have in place to prevent people from slipping to the next level of vulnerability.

By the time someone becomes severely malnourished, a lot of those protections have failed.  There’s a lot that we can do upstream from that to prevent people from reaching that point.

So what we are, what we’re focusing on and what we’re prioritizing is building into place some of those protective barriers, some of those firewalls, to prevent people from reaching a point where they’re severely malnourished.

What does that look like?  That looks like, you know, you prevent people from becoming severely malnourished by having good community-level malnutrition programs, working with the health system to treat any health complications as well.  So we are focusing on scaling those up.

We saw a very effective example of that in our field visit yesterday.  But obviously you want to prevent people from being malnourished in the first place, so that depends on having good rationed distribution.  So we are coordinating very closely with the government and with the World Food Program on scaling up, further scaling up the food distribution and avoiding breaks in the pipeline.  And then obviously you want to minimize the amount to which people need to be relying on food assistance.  So that depends on investing in resilient livelihoods and getting seeds in people’s hands before June so that they can get seeds in the ground ahead of the summer rains.  It means investing in things like livestock fodder and veterinary treatment for animals so that people can protect the strong core of some of their livestock herds.  All of these things are mutually reinforcing interventions.  We’re prioritizing that.

We’re also prioritizing logistics because it’s very logistically difficult to take an architecture that’s built to feed 8 million people and add 10 million people on top of that.  So we’re working with the government and with the UN to bring in additional trucks, to bring in additional warehouses, to address some of the congestion at the port of Djibouti.  To go really from end to end on that logistics supply chain to address any potential delays there.

So those are the priorities that we’re really focusing on in a big way.

In terms of the coordination between the PSNP and the Emergency Food Aid, I think it’s pretty good.  The PSNP has a very core target population that’s well defined.  The Emergency Food Distribution over and above that is over and above that, so it targets a different group of people.

We also heard quite a bit from people in the communities that there is sharing of food rations once they’re distributed.  So if there are people at a village level who need, there’s a lot of sharing going on.  So communities are helping each other survive as well.

Press:  You mentioned the Port of Djibouti.  I was wondering, is Berbera being used at all as an alternative to Djibouti because of the traffic jam?

Director Konyndyk:  The congestion, yeah.  So we are, we and our partners are looking at a number of different options around the region for that.  Berbera could be one of those.  We’re looking at the viability of some different options because it would be helpful to take some of that congestion off of Djibouti.

We have a team in the region right now that is doing a full logistics analysis.  So they’re starting with the port in Djibouti to see how things could be optimized there and they’re following it all the way down the chain to the end of the distribution cycle, because there are challenges all along the way. There are more trucks needed.  There are more warehouses needed.  A lot of those logistics steps need to be optimized.  In our consultations with the government this week, they too are looking very closely at this.  We’re going to be sharing our analysis with them.  They’ve been in close contact with the government in Djibouti on the need to prioritize support for the relief efforts.

Moderator:  Thank you very much.  I think that’s exhausted the questions.

Director Konyndyk:  Thank you.