Development aid increases local resilience to drought

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Development aid increases local resilience to drought

Author: Elisabeth Rosvold, September 2020

Climate change adaptation is increasingly debated by international organizations such as the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO). The recently concluded UN Millennium Development Goal documented significant progress (although not complete success) in halving the proportion of people suffering from hunger by 2015, compared to 1990. However, in the most recent years, the global rate of undernourishment has again been on the rise. According to FAO, the main cause of this retrogression is escalating violence in war-affected areas. Making matters worse, the human cost of war is sometimes compounded by climate shocks, most notably drought. To make affected populations better able to cope with the impacts of climate change, knowledge about such reinforcing vulnerabilities is particularly important in climate adaptation efforts.

FAO reports that the situation is most alarming in Africa, where the concentration of food insecurity is highest, and where rates of malnutrition are increasing more or less across the board. Undernutrition can manifest itself in a variety of ways, but maternal and child malnutrition contributes to 45% of deaths in children under the age of five. In order to reverse this trend, development aid is vital. Broadly speaking, development aid is aimed at increasing recipient communities’ ability to deal with shocks that have the potential to materialize in growth disruptions. Notable sources of such shocks are armed conflict and extreme weather events.

In a recently published article, my PRIO colleagues Siri Aas Rustad, Halvard Buhaug and I investigate whether official development assistance can increase people’s capacity to cope with droughts across Sub-Saharan Africa. Specifically, we look at whether undernutrition rates among children after droughts are lower in areas that have recently received aid projects from the World Bank than in areas that did not. To measure child undernutrition, we use a weight-for-height measure called wasting. Wasting captures acute malnutrition, and several existing case-studies that show that rainfall variability, and particularly drought, increase child wasting (see for instance here).

In order to measure whether local communities’ resilience to drought is in fact better in the areas that receive development aid, we first needed to establish that the drought leaves affected populations worse off. To this end we compile a comprehensive georeferenced dataset of individual respondents from 32 DHS surveys in 16 sub-Saharan African countries. This dataset contains information on 138 103 children which we then compare with historical data on rainfall. As expected, we find that severe droughts are associated with increased levels of child wasting in affected areas. The maps below show the geographic locations of three variables of interest. The second question we pose is whether aid can mitigate some or all of the adverse health effect of drought. Because some areas are more likely to receive aid than others, we use technique called matching to ensure that we only compare outcomes (child wasting) between people that live in areas that have a similar likelihood of receiving aid in the first place.

With this, we find a positive health effect of aid projects among the children who have been exposed to drought in the year before the survey. This means that children living close to aid project locations are better able to cope with a near-future drought than those who do not live close to an aid project site. Among children not exposed to recent drought, the difference in observed health outcomes between aid recipients and the control group is small. In other words, there does not appear to be a general increase in nutrition rates following aid projects.

Because undernutrition is closely linked with food insecurity, aid projects that specifically target the agricultural sector should have benefits for local food and livelihood security, particularly in rural sub-Saharan Africa, where rain-fed agriculture is the dominant sector both in terms of employment and income.

It is therefore somewhat surprising that when we look at aid projects to the agricultural sector alone, we do not find that these projects are able to offset the negative impact of drought on children’s wasting. This suggests that important aid-sensitive drivers of malnutrition are found outside food production and provision systems. In addition, we cannot rule out that possible effects of these projects take longer than a year to materialize.

To conclude, our study clearly indicates that development aid strengthens recipient populations’ ability to cope with future weather anomalies. The finding that agricultural aid does not reduce the adverse effects of receiving populations’ exposure to drought does not however mean that funders should not prioritize these projects. Rather, we believe this particular finding speaks to the importance of cumulative and integrated efforts across aid sectors in order to strengthen local coping capacities. This blog post originally appeared on PRIO’s Climate & Conflict Blog. The article presenting these results in more detail is downloadable for free from the journal’s web page. We acknowledge financial support from the Research Council of Norway (grant no. 250301) and the European Research Council (grant no. 648291).


Lisa Dellmuth, project leader

Maria-Therese Gustafsson

In cooperation with