FAO coordinates agricultural relief network in Burundi

"Burundi can be considered a textbook case supporting strong arguments in favour of setting up a central coordination unit for emergency operations in the agricultural sector," according to Daniele Donati, FAO coordinator of agricultural relief operations in that country.

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Non-governmental organizations CARE (Canada) and the International Rescue Committee (IRC) distribute seeds and hand tools to returning farmers in Burundi

In the 1980s, the small African nation in the Great Lakes region enjoyed relative self-sufficiency in terms of food security. Over 90 percent of Burundi's actively working population were employed in the agriculture sector, contributing some 50 percent of the gross domestic product.

The events of October 1993 changed all that. Civil strife plunged Burundi into chaos, which continues today, claiming hundreds of thousands of lives, displacing many more farm families from their land, and disrupting all farming activities.

A well-coordinated effort by all humanitarian actors was essential if farming and other activities of Burundi's shattered agricultural sector were to be relaunched. Farming families returning to their barren land were in desperate need of the agricultural inputs, seeds and tools required to bring their once flourishing fields back to life.

In April 1996, FAO established the Coordination Unit for Emergency Agricultural Operations in Bujumbura, the capital of Burundi. Its purpose was to coordinate interventions in the agricultural sector and to provide technical assistance to NGOs and UN agencies active in the country.

Relief efforts hampered by lack of cooperation

In early 1996, there was a host of NGOs and UN agencies active in Burundi's agricultural sector, providing stricken farmers with humanitarian assistance, but, according to Donati, there was no coordination of efforts, neither vertically - the Government wasn't informed of operations or who was involved - nor horizontally - there was overlapping of efforts between organizations working in the field.

The result was the establishment of the Agricultural Coordination Commission (ACC), coordinated by FAO and comprising representatives of 25 NGOs, six UN agencies - World Food Programme (WFP), United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS) and OCHA - the Red Cross, and the representatives of two Government ministries (the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock and the Ministry for the Reinsertion and Reinstallation of Displaced Persons and Refugees). "FAO is like a tailor sewing together a patchwork blanket of assistance covering the whole country," said Donati.

Meeting on a weekly basis, the ACC ensures the timely provision of seasonal agricultural inputs, identifies the target population for agricultural assistance, consolidates statistical data and distributes basic agricultural inputs.

One of the major breakthroughs of the ACC was the establishment of a common definition of the beneficiaries to which all ACC participants could agree. The accepted definition was a simple one: "...all rural families that, because of crisis, have been removed from their land for a prolonged period."

"Thanks to the acceptance of this definition of beneficiaries by all the members of ACC, our access to vulnerable people was guaranteed without discrimination or interference," said Donati.

FAO becomes the natural leader in the agricultural sector,
but everyone has a role to play

FAO became the natural leader of this coordinated humanitarian campaign because of its considerable advantage in technical skill and information gathering capacity. But each ACC participant has an important role to play. At the time of the establishment of the coordinating unit, whichever organization was strongest in a particular province became the lead agency in that region. Lead agencies are responsible for liaising with local government and gathering local information from government, churches and civil society to better inform the national project, as well as coordinating the efforts of other humanitarian organizations working in the region.

"Individual NGOs welcomed the opportunity to participate in this dynamic, coordinated effort because none of them could ever cover the entire country by themselves," said Donati. "Also, participation affords maximum visibility in the international donor community, which they would never receive working on their own."

ACC members also agreed to pool their resources. All finances received by participating organizations are deposited in a common fund to purchase agricultural inputs farmers need. All inputs are managed by the FAO office and distributed on a first in/first out request basis. The FAO office also assists in procurement, quality control and market study so that everyone is distributing same quality, same priced goods.

Food rations given before seed supplies

The ACC is co-chaired by FAO and the World Food Programme. The collaboration between the sister agencies is strong and roles are clear. "WFP provides the beneficiaries with food rations at the beginning of the operation in order to protect the seeds that will eventually be delivered", according to Donati. "This is so that the refugees, who have suffered long periods of hunger, do not eat the seeds before they can be planted in the ground for production." WFP moves first with emergency food distribution and FAO follows one step behind with seeds and tools. Once immediate food needs are met WFP withdraws and FAO stays behind to begin the long rehabilitation process. The overall objective being to ensure that emergency food needs are met in manner which increases local capacities for food self-reliance.

The success of this strong collaborative effort has been widely acknowledged. Despite setbacks including the effects of El Niño and economic sanctions imposed on the landlocked nation by neighbouring countries, FAO and its partners continue to help the farmers in Burundi return to their land and produce food for themselves and their families.

"The same coordinated approach is in place in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and FAO is trying to raise funds to set up such a structure in Uganda and Tanzania as well, because of the scope of the Great Lakes crisis at the regional level" said Donati. "By working together with NGOs, other UN agencies and in close collaboration with government authorities, we hope to bring relief to those who need our help"

22 January 1999

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