07/26/2013 12:22 pm ET Updated Jul 27, 2013

Expanding the Focus From Relief to Resilience

Over the past year, 13.3 million people in Kenya, Ethiopia, Djibouti and Somalia were thrown into crisis as a result of drought in the Horn of Africa, the worst in 60 years. In response we, together with the international community, spent more than $1.5 billion saving millions of lives by providing access to food, water and basic health services.

This crisis wasn't unique -- it was merely the peak of a decades-long pattern of emergency and response that has been going on in the region. Over the last decade, the United States and the European Union have spent over $9 billion and mobilized between a quarter and a half of our humanitarian workforce to East Africa.

But money, time, effort are nothing compared to the suffering and loss that dry-land communities continue to face. Because of a changing climate, droughts are becoming more frequent, hitting vulnerable communities harder and creating more hunger emergencies than ever before. As a result, families are uprooted, brothers and sisters lose their siblings and millions of pastoralists struggle to maintain the only existence they've ever known.

It doesn't have to be this way. Droughts can't be prevented, but they can be predicted and mitigated thanks to investments made in early warning systems, satellite technology and on-the-ground analysis. By identifying the communities facing the gravest risks, we can help them withstand crisis.

But to give help with lasting impact, we must expand our focus from relief to resilience -- from responding after emergencies to preparing communities in advance and helping them prevail afterwards.

When we met with African leaders in Nairobi last month, we committed to do just that. Together we are shaping up our policies -- such as the European Union's Supporting Horn of Africa Resilience (SHARE) initiative and the new development partner agreement to form a Global Alliance for Action on Growth and Resilience -- so that resilience is at the heart of everything we do in the Horn of Africa.

For instance, one of the most important measures to build resilience in pastoral areas is supporting livestock. Cattle, goats, and other animals often represent the only assets that dryland communities have. By vaccinating livestock, improving herd quality and insuring pastoralists against loss, we can prevent communities from losing their herds every time a drought strikes.

We can also help farmers in these communities conserve water by helping people dig wells and build rain catchments, employ drip irrigation systems rather than relying solely on rain, and developing better seeds that can resist droughts.

We are also supporting local governments to offer safety net programs that can help both pastoralists and farmers cope. Last year, our support of Ethiopian safety net programs helped prevent 8 million people from slipping into crisis.

Some might assume that drylands and deserts can't actually provide a sustainable livelihood for millions of people. But livestock cultivation is a large and vibrant source of economic activity in the Horn, contributing nearly $300 million to regional economies. A thriving livestock trade with the Middle East brings in over 35 percent of agricultural gross domestic product in Kenya and Ethiopia. In many cases, pastoralism is a lifestyle that's sustainable, profitable and worth protecting.

But most importantly, we have to beat a constant drum: every time a disaster or a drought or a food crisis imperils millions, we have to remind the world that we must generate the same kind of creativity, resourcefulness and generosity toward long-term solutions that are demonstrated during emergencies.

Ultimately, when we talk about resilience, we are talking about dignity. We are talking about helping people stay in their communities instead of being forced to leave in search of help. We are talking about helping farmers and pastoralists improve their livelihoods and grow their incomes, instead of losing their crops or herds. And we're talking about local efforts that allow neglected communities the chance to endure during crisis, instead of depending on handouts from foreign donors.

That desire for dignity -- relying on yourself instead of depending on others -- is something that we all seek. If the international community focuses on resilience -- not just relief -- then we can do our part to support them.

Dr. Kristalina Georgieva is the EU Commissioner for International Cooperation, Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Response. Dr. Rajiv Shah is the Administrator for the U.S. Agency for International Development.