06/25/2012 09:11 am ET Updated Aug 25, 2012

From Relief to Resilience: Heart and Head in the Sahel

This blog is part of a series organized by The Huffington Post and the NGO alliance InterAction to call attention to the crisis in the Sahel, a region in sub-Saharan Africa where more than 18 million people face starvation and 1.1 million children under the age of 5 are at risk of dying from acute malnutrition. Click here to read more of HuffPost Impact's coverage of the Sahel and here to find out what InterAction members and others are doing in the Sahel.

Are you a heart person or a head person?

Me, I'm a little bit of both, as I suspect most people probably are. And in the world of relief and development, it's important to have heart -- to remember the human impact of the work we do. Of course, it's also important to use our heads -- to make sure that the work we're doing is efficient and effective and the best work that we can do.

As we watch a devastating drought unfold in the Sahel for the third time in less than a decade, putting millions at risk of hunger, it occurs to me that perhaps the international community has been responding to these crises over the years with a lot of heart, but maybe not as much head.

Let me explain what I mean.

When someone is hungry, our instinct as one human being to another is to give them food. That's our heart at work. We want to ease their suffering, and food will do that. And whenever there's a humanitarian crisis -- whether it's a slow-onset disaster like the drought in the Sahel, or a sudden shock like the massive earthquake in Haiti -- the humanitarian imperative comes first. When there is life-threatening devastation, you respond with life-saving assistance. That's relief.

But as we've seen in the Sahel in 2005, 2008, and now again in 2012, it's not enough. Droughts are becoming more frequent and more severe, agricultural production is less stable and predictable, and the world can't continue to respond with a Band-Aid approach. We can meet the humanitarian imperative in ways that simultaneously enhance people's ability to meet their needs over the long term and become less vulnerable to future crises. That's resilience.

The international community has lots of tools to help increase resilience. One example is Lutheran World Relief's Resilience Plus program, which is currently providing cash-for-work opportunities for 134,000 people in some of the hardest-hit communities in Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso. Cash-for-work is a common approach, one that puts money in people's hands to meet immediate needs, and contributes to local markets and local economies. Often, as is currently the case in the Sahel, the problem isn't just a lack of food, it's that high prices put food out of reach for the poorest families, who have often suffered crop failure or livestock loss and therefore have no viable livelihood. Helping them earn cash puts food back on their tables.

And when we're intentional about the kind of work we support with the cash-for-work program, we can have a real impact on the future. So we invest in things like watershed management, riverbank protection, irrigation systems, and interventions that decrease the vulnerability of the land -- like terracing, reforesting and tree planting. We also invest in training on improved seed, agricultural and animal production techniques. Vulnerable communities get the help they need to improve their infrastructure, and learn the most effective ways to care for their natural resources, making them much more resistant the next time the rains fail to come.

In this way, we join the heart and the head: helping meet the humanitarian imperative by creating resilient communities. Cash for immediate needs, work toward long-term sustainability.

The international community is starting to understand this. USAID administrator Rajiv Shah recently wrote, "To provide help that has 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. Even as we maintain our enduring commitment to humanitarian assistance, we can use it to achieve long-term results."

I applaud USAID for taking this stand. The more investments the world makes in helping prepare people to withstand droughts, the fewer people will go hungry.