I am writing this month’s Postmark after returning from a fascinating week in Kenya, primarily in the drought-effected Northern province of Marsabit on the border with Ethiopia, where I joined the most recent Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI) field visit. The irony of this trip was the fact that it took place in the midst of the current Long Rains season and therefore much of the time we were discussing famine and food relief while knee deep in water and red mud. This struck me as an interesting parallel with the situation where I live in the South of England.
At the start of the month the government and water companies announced a drought in the region and a “hose pipe ban”. We have since experienced the wettest April since records began in 1910 and it has culminated in me having to decide to postpone the Teddy Bears’ Picnic we were holding as fundraiser for my village school due to a flooded picnic field and the risk of too many sodden cuddly toys!
This month has also seen a great few days on lake Como with Sandy and my father, as well as a trip to New York to attend a special strategy session with Heidrick & Struggles including a review of the new search consultant remuneration model. After so many goes at this while at Accenture this seemed pretty familiar! I returned from the trip to go into the London office of Heidrick to get to know the top team here and provide them with a Board perspective on the future.
Another highlight this month was a camper van trip with my son Matt to explore the historic sites of the Costwolds in the West of England where we took in the full gamut of history from a Neolithic long barrow, a Roman villa, two medieval abbeys and a Tudor castle. We ended up in Oxford at the celebration for my brother Steve’s 50th Birthday.
Sandy and I also trod the red carpet in London to attend the Olivier Awards. This is the centre piece of the London theatre award season and as underwriters of the show we were there to see if Matilda the Musical won any of the 10 categories it was nominated for. In the event the night was a triumph and the show came away with a record 7 awards – including Best Musical and a Best Actress in Musical for the four 10-year-old girls who have played the lead. They and we enjoyed the after show party at the Royal Opera House. The show is now in the process of transferring to New York and is proving to be a real success story for the Royal Shakespeare Company which originated it.
This month also saw the first ever all-staff meeting for the International Business Leaders Forum (IBLF) and it was great to see the 35 personnel, including those from Russia, India and China coming together to learn about each others work and getting a better sense of the new strategy of the organisation. I survived having to give the after-dinner speech in the midst of a central London pub and facilitated a role-playing session on sales pitching to a Russian CEO! This month the Peaslake Schools Trust heard that we had been successful in crossing the first hurdle of application to become a Free School. This is great news for all those who have worked so hard to get us this far and we are now looking forward to our interview at the Department of Education later in May – perhaps in future years we will less dependent on the meteorological risk management surrounding childrens’ toy fests (see above)!
I joined the trip to Kenya as the Lead Commissioner for a report on Humanitarian Aid effectiveness that we are producing, with a focus on the Horn of Africa famine which grabbed the world headlines last year. Our teams looked at the activities and the results across Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya – insofar as we were able to, given the security and access issues in much of the region. In fact I did not know where I was going to be visiting until the last minute as the security challenges of the various aid camps rose during the planning period. Many millions of people had been put in risk of death or malnutrition across the region in mid-2011 when the rains failed for the second year in a row.
This put huge additional pressure on a part of the world which suffers from great poverty, human migrations and conflict at the best of times. The purpose of our review was to judge the effectiveness of a humanitarian intervention in a chronic, as opposed to sudden onset environment, and to see the connections between the emergency response and the ongoing development agenda.
I spent the first day of the trip in a rain-soaked Nairobi, travelling down roads that had become rivers due to thunderous rains to speak to leaders in the region from the UN, OXFAM and other NGO’s as well as meet the local DFID (the UK International Development Department) team. This provided an excellent context to the regional situation, the central perspectives on the aid response and the view of the risks of future crisis. Then it was off to spend the bulk of the time in the field visiting aid beneficiaries in Marsabit district.
We wanted to understand more about the impact of nutrition support, water access and broader livelihood support programmes on the people at the sharp end of the crisis. This district lies two hours flight in a small plane to the north. The flight was operated by a Christian organization and I was not sure how to react to the prayer session conducted by the pilots before take-off!
We bounced to a landing on the airstrip of Marsabit town. This sits on a relatively fertile mountain plateau and our trip took place in the middle of this year’s Long Rains – which fortunately have been quite good (though the overall prognosis is still 60% of the normal). My fellow travellers from the aid community were pleasantly surprised how relatively green the area was, after the parched terrain of just a couple of months before. It is the nature of this region that rains have a quick positive effect on vegetation when they fall but the moisture evaporates and seeps away just as quickly, and drought can set in equally fast. We also travelled out to the more remote Lowlands to see the pastoral Gabra communities that live in the volcanic desert of the Arid and Semi-Arid Lands (the clue is in the name!).
Here we had the bizarre experience of driving through wheel-arch-deep lakes of red standing water on the dirt tracks which criss-cross the plains, surrounded on all sides by black volcanic rocks and sprouting scrub which just weeks before had been featureless desert with not a scrap of green in sight. The good news from all of this recent rainfall is that the communities in the area have been able to stabilize there lives somewhat and are currently not subject to long walks to get water, they have food and they and their livestock are relatively healthy looking. Their existence and well-being however remain fragile.
We spent time with the District Nutrition team responsible for the monitoring and coordination of the interventions to ameliorate malnutrition in the region. They showed us the evidence that the Global and Severe Acute Malnutrition rates in Marsabit had reduced significantly since their peak last year of 27% and 5% respectively of the population and now stand at more “normal” levels of 12.8% and 2.0%. We visited a Health Clinic and spoke to women who were collecting Plumpinut nutrition supplements for their children as well as receiving ongoing malnutrition screening and therapy. It was clear that the children and mothers were looking relatively healthy, though still clearly in great poverty, and they spoke positively of the impact of the various food and nutrition interventions that they had received. We also visited one of the outreach Mother-to-mother self-help groups in a local village.
I conducted a Q&A in front of the spectacularly adorned village women and they spoke with passion about both their ongoing education in nutrition (they even sang me a song about the benefits of Vitamin A!) and about the effectiveness of the twice-monthly visits to the community by the medical and nutritional outreach teams.
The second theme of our trip was Water Access. At the peak of the crisis the distances that people were travelling to access water rose to 40-50km round trips, with many women spending the whole day walking to collect the water for their families. It is clear that the shortage of water did lead to tremendous loss of livestock. Pretty much every farmer or pastoralist we spoke to had lost up to 90% of their herds or flocks and had no real means to restock in the medium term, if ever.
We visited programmes to improve water access to a) retain water from the rains for longer and b) provide access to water closer to communities. We saw Cash-for-work projects on two water “pans” or makeshift mini-reservoirs dug into the countryside. In both cases some 100 local people (mainly women) had been paid for 20 days work to de-silt the previously existing pans and enhance their water retention capacity. In our trip to the Lowland desert in Maikona and Kalacha we saw two examples of water storage and bore hole restoration projects alongside nomadic communities. The bore-holes were dug some 100m into the ground to access fresh water and DFID had provided 50,000 gallon storage tanks – one for a community and one centred on a Public Boarding School for Girls from Nomadic families.
The third area we reviewed was the longer term Hunger Safety Net pilot. This programme has been in place since 2008 in three counties and covers some 60,000 of the most needy people. Each of these people have received 1500 Shillings every two months via an innovative smart card biometric verification and payment system. We saw one of the payment cycles in action in the Gabra town of Kalacha where some 700 local beneficiaries are based. We interviewed many of the 100 women present for the first day of the cycle in the village and were impressed to see how much they have been empowered by the model to focus on the most valuable areas of expenditure in their households. The majority of the additional money has been spent on schooling for their children, with others using it to buy livestock, resolve health issues or set up small businesses.
The system was used during the crisis to provide a special double payment for emergency food. Not surprisingly the system was very popular but it did seem to be genuinely impacting the most needy in these difficult to reach societies and had helped them to get used to technology solutions which have great potential for extension. I spoke with members of the local Rights Committees formed from the communities and validated the fairness of the targeting and dispute resolution systems as well as the local ownership and accountability.
We also saw another pilot focused on providing livestock insurance to pastoralists. For a subsidized premium the farmers could insure against the loss of livestock to drought. They are paid out if the regional loss of livestock hit certain thresholds above that which the local community could cover for itself. The real issue for the pastoralists, who are semi-nomadic herders, is the sheer loss of numbers of animals from last year’s crisis and the huge costs of restocking depleted herds.
This lifestyle is under major sustained threat from urbanization and the repeated impacts of the droughts. As the herds become smaller and the crises more regular there are some innovative ideas for local market and slaughterhouse set-up, drought crisis price optimization and even livestock transportation to less impacted ranches – However many of the men are “dropping out” of the lifestyle and falling into bad habits. It did appear that many of the pastoralists and their families that we met were clinging on to a very hard-to-sustain livelihood.
We saw very little other traffic on our long desert trips and many of the trucks that we did see were trapped axle-deep in muddy road-side ditches. Even our own driver, as he travelled up the mountain to pick us up on the final morning, was scared back into a ditch by a roving herd of elephants with aggressive ear flapping! Our mountain retreat was a rudimentary lodge in a deserted wildlife reserve where we enjoyed heavily rationed bursts of generator electricity for our basic showers and fended off regular attempts by swarms of frogs to invade our rooms as they reveled in the thunderous rains!
The final drama of the trip was a hairy flight back down to Nairobi in a tiny 4-5 seater plane. I sat alongside the pilot for the two hour flight over the dramatic deserts, savannahs and mountains back to the capital. The scenery was spectacular but so were the storms that ranged across the landscape like the Martians in War of the Worlds. Every twenty minutes we would fly straight into the column of thick grey cloud to be buffeted about for a while in zero visibility before emerging to sunshine again! We made it into Nairobi just before the mother of all storms hit and I was glad to be sitting that one out in a taxi back to the hotel rather than have my fingernails any further buried in the dashboard of the plane!
Overall it was a fascinating few days and the chance to spend so much time talking to the courageous, hardy and wonderful people impacted by the drought last year, but also facing hardship on a lifelong basis, was enriching and humbling. Over the coming weeks we will be pulling our thoughts together for our report to Parliament and the UK public and trying to draw lessons as to what worked and where improvements can be made. What is clear is that this kind of crisis is now part of the regular cycle for this part of the world and the opportunity to make the right structural and preventative interventions is key so that all concerned are not left scrambling to act each time.