An early action is a more efficient action

Chris Simoens
09 July 2019
Early response to distress signals limits the damage of extreme drought. This is demonstrated by a pilot project of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Sudan with the support of the Belgian Development Cooperation.

Crises caused by extreme weather conditions occur five times more often than 40 years ago due to climate change. This is certainly the case in Sudan, one of Africa’s driest countries. And yet, 70% of the country’s rural population depends on agriculture, which has to cope with ever more erratic rainfall.

With a population of 1.8 million people, Kassala is one of Sudan’s most vulnerable states. Many 'agropastoralists' live there, farmers who combine traditional, non-mechanised agriculture with small-scale livestock breeding. They are extremely dependent on rainfall to grow millet and sorghum, and to breed some sheep, goats and cows.


Early action

As needs increase and resources are limited, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) intends to provide more effective assistance to people in need. One of the options is to intervene more rapidly, even before a major crisis such as an extreme drought reaches its peak.

In Kassala, FAO tested the effectiveness of this ‘Early Warning Early Action’ approach (EWEA). A good overview of the situation was of course essential. That is why FAO forged a strong partnership with the local and national agencies.

With the support of the European Union, it also set up the Food Security Technical Secretariat, which closely follows a number of indicators: food security of households, health and movements of livestock, animal and plant diseases, and the availability of water.

In August 2017, there was an opportunity to try out the EWEA system. Indeed, two indicators fell into the red: unusual movements of livestock and long periods of drought. The situation worsened in September and October.

Top view of a woman in a hut giving a bowl of concentrated animal feed to a goat.

As a result, FAO decided to implement an 'early action'. The main objective was to protect the animals of 5,000 selected vulnerable families, each with 3 to 12 small animals. This was done by, among other things:

  • vaccinating and deworming 30,000 animals
  • supplying 600 tonnes of concentrated feed and 30 tonnes of mineral licks
  • monitoring the food security of the families even more carefully

When the drought reached its climax in May 2018, FAO was able to respond earlier to the crisis, which facilitated the mobilisation of additional funds, also from the EU.


Return on investment

FAO wanted to know very precisely the impact of this 'early action'. That is why the organisation sent staff members to visit the households that had received aid. They mapped out what the aid had yielded: the value of the animals that survived, the avoided drop in their value by keeping them healthy and the extra milk they produced. The final calculation showed that for 64 dollars invested per family by FAO, each gained 431 dollars. In other words, for every dollar invested, households had a benefit of 6.7 dollars!


For every dollar invested, households had a benefit of 6.7 dollars!

‘I feared I would have to buy bread to keep my animals alive’, Tohaj Mussa tells us. Today, her animals are so healthy that they can breed. She now has 7 animals instead of 5. ‘I don't have to buy milk or go to the market’. For agropastoralists like Tohaj, losing their herds is like draining their bank accounts. It fuels a dangerous spiral of poverty and batters their dignity and self-esteem.

Milk and dairy products are proving to be extremely important for these vulnerable families. Did you know that half a litre of milk a day provides 25% of the calories and 65% of the protein needed by a five-year-old child? And well-nourished, healthy animals can produce a lot of milk. They also grow better, are worth more money and can be used for transport and to cultivate the land.

A man milks an animal while a woman with a child watches.

‘I used to go to the market to buy expensive feed that was not even enough for my animals. Thanks to FAO’s aid, my animals are healthy and they produce milk. I sell some of it - also in the form of ghee and yoghurt - on the market and to the neighbours’, says a satisfied Amna Mahmoud Mohammed.

In short, by monitoring the situation very closely and taking early action, humanitarian aid can provide much more efficient assistance to people in need.

The FAO has also tested Early Action in 2 other countries, both with Belgian support. Watch the FAO pamphlets about the test in Mongolia en in Madagascar.

Belgium supports humanitarian aid from FAO


Belgium has been supporting the SFERA emergency fund (Special Fund for Emergency and Rehabilitation) since 2014. This fund enables FAO to respond quickly to emergency situations. In 2014, FAO established an 'Early Action' component. Objective: (1) preventing a disaster; (2) limiting the impact of an anticipated event; (3) making targeted investments in order to be able to act more effectively in the event of specific threats. Belgium supported the 'Early Action' component in 2017 and 2018 with 1 million euros each. In 2019, our country will provide 1.5 million euros.

Humanitarian aid Sudan
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