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Friday Podcasts From ECSP and MHI
At the nexus of global environmental change, security, development, and health
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April 13, 2017 10:52 AM PDT

As more and more development and humanitarian programs contend with climate-related problems, there are important lessons learned from past experience that should not be forgotten, says Janani Vivekananda, formerly of International Alert and now with adelphi, in this week’s episode of “Backdraft.”

In her work with International Alert, Vivekananda found there was often a misconception that all renewable energy projects are an “unalloyed good.” But renewable energy efforts still require access to resources, like land and water, which can be highly contested (listen to Stacy VanDeveer in Backdraft #2 for more on this). Traditional extractive industries like oil and gas have grappled with conflict risks in the communities they work for decades, to greater and lesser degrees of success, but little of that experience has transferred over to the renewable sector, she says.

Vivekananda says that development actors looking to encourage renewable energy projects should strive to understand local power dynamics as much as possible – who controls assets, and is it through formal or informal agreements, treaties, etc. “Then understand how your intervention is going to affect and change this and who the winners and losers are going to be.”

There can be significant financial and social costs when conflict-sensitivity is not built into program design. Vivekananda gives the example of a wind farm in northwest Kenya proposed by a large international bank. The consultation process focused on elites at the district level, but did not include local non-elites who would be directly affected by the project. Consequently, the project broke down as the project organizers realized too late that the land required was already highly contested.

“These local contextual conflict dynamics were not fed into program design,” says Vivekananda, “and it was a very expensive way to learn about the need to ensure that an intervention was conflict-sensitive.”

Humanitarian interventions are another response that by their very nature – immediate, short-term, and urgent – often do not plan for longer-term impacts. As groups rush to fill the burgeoning global need, “we’re seeing then that humanitarian interventions are climate blind and conflict blind,” says Vivekananda. Refugee camps, like Zaatari in Jordan which houses nearly 80,000 refugees, are often built without sustainable water or energy use plans. Groundwater extraction in Zaatari has inflated the local water market making it difficult for surrounding communities to afford water, thereby increasing tensions, says Vivekananda.

To address gaps in planning, Vivekananda says a shift in mindset is needed not only at the practitioner level, but at the political level. By incorporating a sustainable development and conflict-sensitive lens at the outset, interventions can not only help avoid conflict but actively increase cohesion and trust.

In Kibera, a large informal settlement in Nairobi, Vivekananda and her colleagues saw firsthand the peace dividends that can come from a forward-looking, participatory planning approach. They found that the projects most likely to increase community resilience – to both conflict and climate risks like flooding – were the ones that “through their process involve people in decisions and planning and are participatory by nature and therefore build trust between the communities affected and the government.”

Interventions with a single sector approach – e.g., moving people from informal shacks to more sturdy structures – sometimes inadvertently undermined social networks and ultimately had a negative impact on community resilience. “That social cohesion is critical and if you’re intervening in a way that dislocates that, undermines that, it’s unlikely to take hold,” says Vivekananda.

The “Backdraft” podcast series is hosted and co-produced by Lauren Herzer Risi and Sean Peoples, a freelance multimedia producer based in Washington, DC.

Friday Podcasts are also available for download on iTunes and Google Play.

April 06, 2017 08:07 AM PDT

In a research project spanning more than two dozen case studies on environmental governance in 13 sub-Saharan African countries, Jesse Ribot, professor at the University of Illinois, and colleagues found that while many forest management projects claimed to be working with communities, they were in fact undermining local democracy in various ways.

For example, Ribot says in this week’s episode of “Backdraft” that REDD, REDD-readiness, and other forest governance projects often circumvented locally elected officials for the sake of convenience and in response to pressure for quantifiable results. The workarounds were done “almost systematically, and not in ways that were subtle.”

Why does this matter? Local democratic processes are “the nursery of democracy,” says Ribot. “People learn democratic process in local democracy and they go other places within their country and up the hierarchy.” When you have a system of decision-making that is accountable to the people, you have greater equity and stronger outcomes for the population.

“Legitimacy follows power,” says Ribot, “and if you’re a project and you recognize a local actor as your interlocutor, your local representative, you’re empowering them, and that legitimates them.” Similarly, when development interventions ignore locally elected leaders, they delegitimize them.

Where communities had more than one authority with overlapping responsibilities – e.g., elected local government, customary chiefs, and administrators from central government – development practitioners often chose to work with one of the traditional or centralized authorities over the democratically elected local government. One reason for this was that practitioners operated on the assumption that the customary chief spoke for the people. Digging deeper, Ribot and his colleagues found that while the customary chief often did speak for the people, their opinions were rarely accurately represented. The democratically elected local government was able to more effectively reflect the interests of the people.

Ultimately, regardless of the pressure to produce results that may follow climate mitigation and adaptation programs, Ribot says the process matters.

Rather than the climate event itself, it’s the vulnerability of a community that causes a catastrophe, says Ribot. Often people are not vulnerable to climate events because they lack adaptive capacity, but because of overwhelmed, poor, or exploitive governance. Undermining what democratic governance there is, therefore, is unlikely to produce positive results.

The “Backdraft” podcast series is hosted and co-produced by Lauren Herzer Risi and Sean Peoples, a freelance multimedia producer based in Washington, DC.

Friday Podcasts are also available for download on iTunes and Google Play.

March 30, 2017 12:49 PM PDT

“Midwives have the knowledge, midwives have the skills, and have the heart and compassion to serve mothers and babies in the most perfect way,” explains Samara Ferrara in this week’s podcast. But they often face demoralizing conditions, poor pay, and in some cases disdain from doctors.

A new survey, Midwives' Voices, Midwives Realities, reports that “nearly 300,000 women and 2.7 million newborns die during the first 28 days of life, many from preventable causes.” Led by the World Health Organization, International Confederation of Midwives, and White Ribbon Alliance, this first-of-its kind survey highlights how midwives can buttress efforts to reduce maternal and newborn fatalities but also explores the everyday challenges they encounter around the world.

As a young midwifery leader and board member of Mexico’s Midwife Association, Ferrara advocates for a greater role for her colleagues in Mexico’s efforts to make childbirth safer.
“Twenty years ago, almost half the births were attended by midwives,” she says of Mexico. Now it is only two percent. “Ninety-five percent of births are attended by physicians, so births are over-medicalized,” she says. Mexico has among the highest rate of cesarean sections in the world.

More midwives could help reduce unnecessary surgeries and the complications that come with them. But there are few opportunities for growth and recognition within the broader health system, Ferrara says, which discourages new midwives and professional advancement. As well, “the hospitals don’t accept home births easily,” making it difficult to register newborns and obtain a birth certificate for practicing midwives and their patients.

“In total we only have 100 midwives in the whole country,” Ferrara says. In fact, there are only five midwifery schools Mexico’s 31 states.

Of the recommendations in the report, Ferrara cited greater educational opportunities as a big first step to bridging the gap between private-practice midwives and the country’s health system. “We need to start by education in every level,” she says, in order “to have more professional ways to advance.”

Additionally, Ferrara points out a public perception gap since “people don’t know what midwifery is about.” In order to raise awareness, she reiterates the important role midwives play in providing quality, safe childrearing expertise. “We know what women need,” says Ferrara, “we know what babies need, and we need to be there providing the highest standard of care.”

Samara Ferrara spoke at the Wilson Center on February 27, 2017.

Friday Podcasts are also available for download on iTunes and Google Play.

March 23, 2017 11:01 AM PDT

In international development, conflict is often used as shorthand for violent conflict, and avoiding conflict is considered a priority. But “it’s important to recognize that conflict is not always bad and cooperation is not always good,” says Ken Conca in this week’s episode of “Backdraft.”

New norms and ideas in international water law and governance, for example, like water as a human right and the importance of protecting the environment, have been spearheaded by activists, local communities, and networks of actors who were “outside of the system,” says Conca, professor of international relations at American University. Their ideas and priorities only became part of the conversation by confronting the powers that be.

“People who hadn’t been part of participatory political process were sort of pushing their way in, creating conflict in the process, but doing it in a way that was actually quite productive in terms of better policies,” he says. If you’re interested in improving governance of a basin or equity, such “productive conflict” isn’t necessarily something to avoid and may be in fact be something to encourage.

Likewise, not all cooperation is inherently good. Conca points to the World Bank requirement for a cooperative agreement to be in place between riparian nations in a shared basin before lending money. “That’s a good practice as far as it goes…but under those circumstances there’s a danger that cooperation starts to become the end in itself, rather than simply the means to an end… It’s important that we look at the content of that cooperation.”

Collaboration at one level, like national governments deciding to modernize a basin, may impose costs at another level, threatening traditional livelihoods or even displacing people.

“If one of our responses to living in a climate change word is going to be to rework our infrastructure around water, then we’re inherently going to be creating controversies, we’re going to inherently be in the space of conflict, we’re inherently going to be creating winners and losers,” says Conca.

To minimize the chances of violent conflict and maximize the chances of sustainable, equitable development, Conca suggests a few guiding principles:

1. Decentralize: Rather than focusing on one large project, governments should promote a “broader suite of responses” that can be more targeted and flexible.

2. Remember the end goal: Especially with large infrastructure projects, which pose significant technical and financial challenges, Conca warns that the project itself can become an end in and of itself. “It’s important to pull back and ask what are the water-energy needs of the basin and how do we achieve them in a low-cost and robust, flexible manner,” he says. “If we take that approach and start to pit the more familiar kinds of responses to the new kinds of alternatives – solar, wind, renewable, small-scale hydro – you start to see many more possibilities.”

3. Be conflict-sensitive: Tools like USAID’s Water and Conflict Toolkit can help identify the winners and losers at the start of an intervention, allowing project designers and implementers to better manage conflict of all kinds, including productive and non-productive, and peacebuilding opportunities.

As climate change interacts with natural, social, and political processes, the complexity of responding will only increase. “The central premise of Backdraft,” says Conca, “is there’s as much conflict potential in the policies you embrace and the adaptations and in the adjustments to the problem that you make as there is in the problem itself.”

The “Backdraft” podcast series is hosted and co-produced by Lauren Herzer Risi and Sean Peoples, a freelance multimedia producer based in Washington, DC.

Friday Podcasts are also available for download on iTunes and Google Play.

March 16, 2017 01:47 PM PDT

Does global water stress matter for U.S. national security, and if so, how? That’s a major focus of the next CNA Military Advisory report, says Julia McQuaid of the CNA Corporation in this week's podcast. She talks about the preliminary findings of the report and how the national security community views water.

Understandably, the primary focus of much of the U.S. national security apparatus has been terrorist organizations like ISIS and Al Qaeda. “Most of these groups and these threats are operating in areas where there is deep instability and/or are hot conflict zones,” says McQuaid. “Incidentally many of them are also experiencing the conditions of water stress.” The correlation has made water a natural point of interest.

But while there is an implicit sense that water stress and conflict are connected, there is little comprehensive research that defines and articulates the link. Speculative work predicting “water wars” that do not come to pass has led many in the military to question, “when the rubber hits the road, how do these conditions lead to conflict?” says McQuaid, who has worked closely with Pentagon personnel in her time at CNA.

She explained that the conflicts predominant in the Middle East and North Africa – insurgencies, civil wars, and terrorism – are always the result of multiple factors. “Many involve governments and non-state actors competing or vying for the support and acquiescence of population, and/or they’re trying to control physical territory. And in most cases, the entities opposing the groups are trying to overthrow the government and replace it ultimately. That’s the end goal.” No single factor can be isolated as the source of conflict in these cases, including water.

Should water be considered among the most important factors, however? “The answer is a resounding, yes,” McQuaid says. “Our research shows that it is a factor, and that as water stress gets worse, as it’s projected to do, it will likely play an increasing role as a factor in instability and conflict.”

“We know it’s not a straight line,” she says. “What water stress conditions can do and tend to do is to act as an additional stressor or multiplier on top of preexisting challenges that in many cases are also not being addressed.” She points to Northern Nigeria and Libya as regions where longstanding issues of corruption, lack of economic opportunity, and migration have combined with water problems in dangerous ways.

Migration in particular has complex and compounding effects of its own. McQuaid explains that when people move, they usually move to areas already occupied, which can lead to economic stress and resource shortages if not well managed. “The migration in and of itself isn’t a problem, but it triggers the second and third order affects that can be and often are.”

Good government can mitigate these stresses and help solve grievances before they become violent; overwhelmed or bad governments can make things worse. “It can be an issue of political will in areas that don’t matter to central governments…and also it can be a resource and capacity issue where they know it’s happening but they simply don’t have the tools, the technology, the know-how to respond.”

Early warning systems and analytical tools could help to a certain degree, says McQuaid. The difficult question for the military though is what does a warfighting organization do about water stress?

“Killing bad guys and working with partners to kill bad guys will only get us so far in this fight,” she tells the Wilson Center’s Sherri Goodman. “At some point we’re going to have to find effective measures to deal with these underlying things that are contributing to the types of environments that are allowing these types of groups to take hold.”

Julia McQuaid spoke at the Wilson Center on March 1, 2017.

Friday Podcasts are also available for download on iTunes and Google Play.

March 09, 2017 01:44 PM PST

Unintended consequences from climate interventions are often the result of not understanding decision-making at a granular enough level, says Ed Carr this week’s “Backdraft” episode.

How people construct their identities and their perception of how the world works can make or break an intervention, says Carr, professor and director of the Humanitarian Response and Development Lab at Clark University and former AAAS policy fellow at the U.S. Agency for International Development.

“That sounds all fuzzy and soft, but if you don’t have that information you really can’t understand how people are making decisions, and if you don’t understand how they’re making decisions…and who gets to make the decisions…you have no idea how the interventions are interacting with that.”

For example, in research conducted for USAID in southern Mali, Carr found that climate-smart agriculture projects could have unforeseen effects on gender dynamics. Farming staple grains is largely considered the responsibility of men in the region, so a project focused on increasing yields among these crops could widen income gaps between men and women. Conversely, if the project took steps to promote production by female farmers, it could undermine men’s status and cultural identities in a significant way, potentially leading to increased rates of domestic violence.

Carr stressed the importance of ethnographic research to help policymakers understand differences in context from place to place that could affect results.

How projects are monitored and evaluated, or “M&E” in development parlance, can also hide inadvertent consequences. “What gets measured gets managed,” says Carr. If a climate project has a significant impact that was unintended, it may not get recorded or addressed because the M&E plan was written to look for specific results only. The opportunity to build on or mitigate unexpected results – good or bad – is lost in such an inflexible system.

These challenges are not unique to climate responses, but symptoms of how development is carried out generally, Carr says, often in a targeted manner, sector by sector. “Sectoral development focuses on particular issues as if they’re not parts of complex systems, and as a result it narrows our monitoring and evaluation, it narrows our understanding of the world, it narrows our understanding of the problems we’re addressing.”

Carr stresses the need for more flexibility generally. “We need innovative contract and funding mechanisms for work that allow people to pivot really hard when we learn something new or when a project starts doing something bad or good that we didn’t expect.”

He admits there are challenges to scaling up the kind of household and sub-household research he and colleagues have been doing in West Africa, but says they are working on it. It might be possible to bring lessons learned from their experience to other ethnically and “agro-ecologically” similar communities, he says.

“We, the qualitative research community [and] interpretive social science community, have not worked as much to think about generalization and how to get to generalization as we could have, so I’m actually excited to try and do that.”

The “Backdraft” podcast series is hosted and co-produced by Lauren Herzer Risi and Sean Peoples, a freelance multimedia producer based in Washington, DC.

Friday Podcasts are also available for download on iTunes and Google Play.

March 02, 2017 12:05 PM PST

Experts predict that climate change will spur some people to leave their homes and countries. How will national security be affected as a result?

In this week’s podcast, ECSP’s Roger-Mark De Souza leads a Ground Truth Briefing at the Wilson Center on this question. De Souza was joined by Maxine Burkett, a Wilson Center global fellow and associate professor of law at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa; Joseph Cassidy, a Wilson Center fellow and former director for policy, regional, and functional organizations at the U.S. Department of State; and Sherri Goodman, a Wilson Center fellow and former deputy undersecretary of defense for environmental security at the U.S. Department of Defense.

One of the fundamental problems when talking about climate change and migration is a lack of universal definitions and international frameworks, says Burkett.

The term “refugee” has a legal definition and obligations that go with it that do not apply to people displaced by climate change. A more appropriate term for most situations is climate-induced migration or displacement, yet “climate refugees” is commonly used by advocates and critics alike. Further, determining how climate change has factored into displacement or a person’s decision to migrate is an inexact science.

Cassidy pinpoints three categories of risk associated with climate-induced migration and displacement: direct risks, indirect risks, and third-order risks from how we respond.

On the one hand, Cassidy says, it can be difficult to mobilize high-level officials and policymakers to address many of the direct and indirect risks related to climate-induced migration, like increased demand for humanitarian assistance (a direct risk) or disruptions to the global economy from new flows of people (indirect). U.S. policymakers tend to be focused on immediate crises and hard power, he says, a byproduct of how the national security apparatus is structured.

On the other hand, hasty or poorly thought out responses could cause even more problems, Cassidy says, citing the recent U.S. visa restrictions as an example. “People and governments [make] poor choices under stress that have unintended consequences,” he says – an idea explored in ECSP’s “backdraft” work on the peace and conflict consequences of climate responses.

The United States military has, for its part, recognized climate change as a “threat multiplier” for several years, says Goodman, repeatedly noting the associated risks of climate change and displacement in strategic documents. New Secretary of Defense James Mattis has acknowledged climate change as a driving force for instability in both fragile and stable regions of the world.

The military has taken note for good reason, Goodman says. As the country’s “911 force,” it is often first on the scene for humanitarian disasters, public health emergencies, and other crises. Goodman says the Pentagon now needs a long-term strategic approach to working with other U.S. agencies and civilians to address climate-related issues like migration and displacement, as many associated problems cannot be solved by the military alone.

Climate-related impacts on migration and political instability are expected to get worse, especially in hotspots with dense populations, like South Asia and Southeast Asia, says Burkett. But there is a lot we don’t yet know.

“If we get a better sense of the scope of the issue, we can at least plan for it,” says Burkett. “But right now, we don’t even exactly know how many individuals [or] communities are going to be affected.” Such uncertainty makes it difficult to create policy responses that will actually reduce or mitigate violent conflict.

International frameworks, such as they are, are not well structured to deal with this nexus of issues, says Cassidy. He notes that the many government, non-government, and multilateral organizations that make up the global climate and humanitarian regime each has their own “particular, parochial” perspective, resulting in a lack of cohesion. The international community needs to solve the underlying long-term issues that force people to move, he says, and this includes climate change but also conflict.

In a guide for policymakers released last year, Navigating Complexity, ECSP outlined several core principles to preventing violence related to climate change and migration, including strengthening local institutions that handle land and other resource rights, avoiding sensationalizing migrants as security risks, and adopting a “do no harm” (though not “do nothing”) approach to climate and humanitarian interventions.

These principles, in conjunction with enhancing predictive capabilities, would help the United States and partners better prepare for associated national security risks.

This Ground Truth Briefing was recorded at the Wilson Center on February 28, 2017.

Friday Podcasts are also available for download on iTunes and Google Play.

Sources: United States Joint Forces Command.

February 28, 2017 09:18 AM PST

A “green economy,” an energy sector composed entirely of renewables, is the goal of many. But we haven’t thought out the full implications of that change, says Stacy VanDeveer, professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston, in this week’s “Backdraft” podcast.

In the latest episode in our series on the peace and conflict consequences of climate change responses, VanDeveer discusses how cleaner energy can still be a dirty business and what de-carbonization could mean for petro states.

Meet the New Economy, Same as the Old Economy?

The promising growth of renewable energy – which includes wind, solar, and hydropower – is expected to continue, spurred by technological improvements and supportive policies in key markets.

However, warns VanDeveer, though these produce less carbon during generation, “the high-tech economy is not that different at the mining end of the stream than the old one.”

Clean energy still requires extensive mining and, in particular, large quantities of rare earth minerals. Extraction of rare earth minerals primarily takes place in vulnerable communities around the world, where people lack labor rights and are exposed to environmental hazards.

This has repercussions beyond the immediate impacts on mining communities. If you haven’t addressed inefficiencies and waste throughout the supply chain, you won’t see the expected reductions in carbon emissions, says VanDeveer. It can also undermine efforts to build democratic governance.

“The first thing,” says VanDeveer, “is to acknowledge that while we have one global climate change conversation, when people are actually dealing with energy issues – who has it, who doesn’t have it, how much it costs – those decisions are much more local and much more national.” India and South Africa are going to look different from the United States and Europe in their coal use, for example, because their needs and economies are different.

Understanding the energy needs of people at different levels of decision-making and in different contexts is important to developing climate policy that decreases emissions but also provides benefits to affected communities – or at a minimum, doesn’t introduce further stress.

VanDeveer suggests the best climate policies will involve more input from people directly affected by energy decisions and will be designed with their outcomes in mind. Yes, we want to see a reduction in carbon emissions, he says, but we also want people to have more economic opportunities and to benefit from stronger democracies.

A Shared Responsibility

VanDeveer also recommends speaking more openly about what climate and energy policies will mean for oil-dependent economies.

If oil sales decrease, there will be real consequences for petro states like Nigeria, Chad, Russia, and Saudi Arabia. “Many of these states have very poor governance, a lot of corruption, a lot of environmental hazards from the oil industry, and people in those places have not been allowed to have democratic articulation, they can’t get control of the negatives in the oil company,” says VanDeveer.

There’s a very real possibility that if the oil money dries up, these nations will be even less capable of delivering basic goods. After the collapse of oil prices in recent years, some African states slashed domestic spending on health care, for example. Such a collapse could contribute to instability, migration, even violent revolution.

“At the end of the day, that’s much of our money,” VanDeveer says. “That money is flowing from some countries to others, so we have some sort of shared responsibility for these very undemocratic and corrupt outcomes.”

Whether driven by government policy or market fundamentals, changes to the energy economy are not just an international concern, says VanDeveer. Already, shifts away from coal are affecting communities across the United States.

“If we haven’t thought about what happens to these people when the economy changes, we haven’t done them a service of good government and we haven’t been good citizens,” he says. “Yes, there are millions of jobs in the new energy economy, but they may not be in the same states, they are not in the same communities, they are not for people with the same skills.”

The “Backdraft” podcast series is hosted and co-produced by Sean Peoples, a freelance multimedia producer based in Washington, DC.

Friday Podcasts are also available for download on iTunes and Google Play.

February 24, 2017 06:53 AM PST

“If we think sustainable development is the goal we want to achieve, we have to be radical in elevating those who have been traditionally excluded,” says Kimberly Marion Suiseeya in this week’s “Backdraft” episode. “We have to approach conservation and global environmental governance from the perspective of the invisible and the marginalized people.”

Climate interventions are often developed and implemented from the international perspective first and foremost, leading to unanticipated consequences for affected communities. Interventions like REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) can alter informal land use practices and undermine traditional forms of conflict resolution.

Suiseeya saw this firsthand with a cluster of villages in the Kiet Ngong wetland of southern Laos. When efforts to delineate land use and boundaries were introduced by development agencies ostensibly to improve conservation, they inadvertently caused conflict by assigning most of the previously collectively managed wetland and its resources to one village.

“If you’re not understanding how people manage a resource, who gets privileged through these processes, who gets marginalized, you really have the potential of backdraft and conflict and that’s a much longer-term development problem that you’ve just exacerbated,” says Suiseeya.

To do this this requires more listening and less prescribing by intervening parties, whether they are a national government, international development actor, or NGO. Interventions developed without an understanding of the needs and wants of the affected people run the risk of, at a minimum, failing, or worse, causing conflict.

Suiseeya recommends taking steps to understand how projects “either reify or shift the power dynamics in communities.” Different ways of living and understanding the world affect how natural resources are managed, she says. Intervening actors must understand this and build it into their project, or risk poor outcomes. You get there through a justice lens, she says, and by thinking about who is at the table and who is not.

“Decolonizing methodologies” encourage the researcher or practitioner to meet people where they are and understand the ways that a community may or may not want to be engaged. This can lead to better buy-in from the community, the empowerment of local leaders, and better conservation results in the long term.

All of these approaches require better listening. “If we’re not paying attention to that voice component, we’re actually seeing some disempowerment,” says Suiseeya. “It’s a question of how can we use our projects to put people in the driver’s seat of their own futures.”

One good sign: In September of last year, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the world’s largest environmental network, added a new membership category for indigenous peoples’ organizations. “The vote to allow indigenous people to represent themselves through their own organizations is a huge change that we would not have seen 5 or 10 years ago,” Suiseeya says.

The “Backdraft” podcast series is hosted and co-produced by Sean Peoples, a freelance multimedia producer based in Washington, DC.

Friday Podcasts are also available for download on iTunes and Google Play.

February 16, 2017 12:24 PM PST

There has been great progress in anticipating famines in recent years, with most predicted six or more months ahead of time, says Richard Choularton, senior associate for food security and climate change at Tetra Tech, in this week’s podcast. But action to address their humanitarian impacts has lagged. Responses need to be more consistent and faster, he says, happening “almost without human intervention.”


Choularton outlines three areas with the greatest potential to improve response time and reduce the effect of famines.


The first are financial mechanisms to insure countries and communities against the risk of famine. These programs use climate and agricultural data to release emergency funds either right at the end of a bad growing season or, in some cases, even before the end of the season. The African Risk Capacity scheme, for example, is an African Union project that provides emergency funding to seven member states. Humanitarian organizations, such as the Red Cross and World Food Program, are going even further, “using climate forecasts to trigger financing before a potential disaster strikes,” says Choularton. This offers the flexibility to help farmers switch to drought tolerant seeds and initiate supplemental feeding programs for children so they are in a better position to weather a lean season.


In addition to saving lives, such measures save “significant costs,” says Choularton. While no forecast is perfect, analysis by the UK Department for International Development found that early responses to drought in Kenya could save approximately $20 billion over a 20 year period, enough to offset the costs of up to six unnecessary interventions due to incorrect forecasts.


The second area for improvement is investing more at the community level. The regions that suffer most from the major famines that get international attention often also experience recurring, smaller bouts of food insecurity. Investments in social protection systems that can provide food and income support to poor households during times of need, along largescale landscape transformation to conserve soil and water, can foster greater adaptiveness and resilience.


The R4 Initiative by the World Food Program and Oxfam America, for example, provides drought insurance and microcredit to farmers in Ethiopia, Malawi, Senegal, and Zambia in exchange for their labor on anti-drought infrastructure. After three years, impact evaluation showed participating farmers had more savings than non-participants, invested more in agricultural labor, owned more plough oxen, and were more likely to keep their kids in school when droughts occurred, says Choularton.


The third area Choularton highlights is mobile technology. In Ethiopia, Project Concern International, Google, and USAID are creating pasture maps from satellite images and dispersing to them herders. For just the cost of a sheet of paper, daily print-outs help agro-pastoralists make informed decisions about where to graze their herds. In the pilot project, three quarters of households surveyed used the maps to inform their migration decisions, and herd mortality declined 47 percent.


A common thread among these anti-famine measures is that they use climate and agricultural data to empower countries, communities, and individuals to understand and manage risk, says Choularton. “Simple things, like getting the right information to people so they can make better decisions about how to manage the risks they face, have tremendous potential to help in these circumstances.”


Richard Choularton spoke at the Wilson Center on January 26, 2017.


Friday Podcasts are also available for download on iTunes and Google Play.


Sources: UK Department for International Development.

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step 3:

Plug your mobile device (iPhone, iPad, iPod) into your computer with the Dock Connector cable, and click the device in iTunes's left navigation bar.


Once you have your device highlighted, click "Podcasts" in the top navigation bar and sync the podcasts you want on your device. Click "apply" and the episodes you have downloaded on your iTunes software will sync with your device.
that's it!

The beauty of this process is that now, every new episode of your subscribed podcasts will automatically sync to your device every time you plug it in and open iTunes. You can now take your favorite shows with you everywhere you go.


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