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World Humanitarian Day 2016: Staff profiles

Staff profiles: Borja - Lesotho

Lesotho faces considerable challenges – high levels of poverty and HIV/AIDS prevalence, chronic malnutrition, erosion of natural resources – which have been exacerbated by the El Niño-induced drought. With no rains during the 2015/16 planting season, most farmers were simply unable to plant. The drought also hit South African farming – the main exporter of cereals to Lesotho – raising food prices beyond the means of many people. With already low levels of resilience, the drought pushed thousands of families into hunger in Lesotho.

Borja MIGUELEZ has worked in humanitarian contexts in Africa, Asia and Latin America for the last 16 years, and has been FAO’s Emergency Coordinator in Lesotho since 2012. He shares some of his experiences with FAO in Lesotho.

What is your current role with FAO and what does it involve?
As Emergency Coordinator, I supervise the timely assessment of needs, design and implementation of FAO’s emergency and resilience building strategies and programmes in Lesotho.

What motivates you to work in the agriculture and food security sector?
Agriculture and food security are the foundation of any society, although sometimes we take them for granted! Both are increasingly interconnected with environmental sustainability but also with equity imperatives that need to be addressed. Stewardship of our planet and social justice go hand in hand and I find it very motivating to be part of a group of professionals that try to improve things and move forward. The complexity of man-made and natural disasters is extremely challenging and stimulating. And especially, being able to assist people when they need it most is a privilege.

How has El Niño affected food security in Lesotho?
The drought has placed the livelihoods of about one-third of the population (680 000 people) at risk, forcing families to adopt coping mechanisms that compromise their ability to make a living. Most farmers in Lesotho are subsistence farmers and agriculture is critical to their livelihoods. They have difficulties accessing agricultural inputs and financial services. At the same time, they lack information and technical support to adapt to climate-related hazards and diversify their livelihoods accordingly.

How is FAO responding to the El Niño emergency?
Our current response is based on what we learned during the last emergency in 2012–2013, when we invested a lot of effort in building capacities on climate-smart agriculture, along with recovery activities to reduce future risks. We also piloted innovative approaches such as complementing national social protection programmes with production support for the poorest families. We realized how important the connection with natural resources was and developed a Land Cover map to allow the country monitor slow changes and turning points. All of this meant we were fully operational in responding to El Niño from day 1 and enabled us to continue investing in longer-term strategic areas of work as part of the emergency response, which is essential in the context of Lesotho context.

FAO’s main goal is to protect livelihoods by providing quality seeds and agricultural inputs to as many vulnerable families as possible, with the aim of reaching at least 20 000 families, before the planting season ends (around November). We will also continue promoting technical innovations that help families to reduce their exposure to risks. At the same time, FAO plans to complement the social protection benefits of 50 000 families with home gardening and nutrition support. FAO also needs resources to expand our activities in protecting rangeland and water sources, and helping to build resilience through improved community productive assets. This should just be the beginning. The reality is that complex problems require complex solutions: diversification of livelihoods, development of marketing channels, sustainable management of natural resources are critical. Emergencies give us the opportunity to help people in the short term, but also to anchor longer-term issues both at community and policy levels.

Can you share your most inspiring moment in humanitarian (FAO) work? i.e., in terms of work achievement in the country where you are, what have you been most proud about?
When you work in international contexts in emergency/humanitarian work, you often don’t see the growth of your work over four, five years. In Lesotho, however, I have seen the evolution of our programme and how the initial steps become more robust and solid. In 2012, Conservation Agriculture was still limited to a few project areas, now it is known across the country, including in hundreds of schools. In 2013, we piloted a project to complement social protection with agriculture support for 800 families. In 2016, this activity will reach over 50 000 families. While these are still insufficient gains, they show that we can move in the right direction and make a meaningful contribution even with limited funds.

What is it like working in an emergency environment?
Emergencies generate heavy workloads and demand a great commitment and focus from all of us. They also bring a lot of satisfaction. You can see the impact of your work very rapidly and this is a great stimulus.

What are the biggest challenges for you and how do you cope?
Emergency work is part of an increasingly complex environment. More than shocks we are intervening in a context where vulnerabilities are the result of diverse and intricate stressors. Quick solutions are not enough and at times this can be overwhelming. I try to focus on the small steps while always maintaining a clear strategic vision for the long term.

What are the biggest challenges facing FAO in Lesotho?
Lesotho faces many structural limitations that lead to emergency peaks. While it is clear that the food security sector requires more sustained support, most of the interventions in the sector are funded by humanitarian donors, limiting the time scope and nature of the activities. I hope this will start changing. We have indications that development donors are increasingly considering natural resources as a key element for sustained improvement in the water, energy and health sectors. I hope this El Niño emergency and climate change contribute to highlight these linkages.