But the line between our “normal” work and emergency response is blurry. Much of CARE’s long-term community development is designed to help people and communities become more resilient so that when emergencies happen, they don’t become disasters. 

The enormous food crisis gripping West Africa’s Sahel region right now is an emergency that became a disaster. Erratic rains, a terrible harvest and soaring global food prices mean 18 million people in this chronically poor region are now in need of urgent food assistance. As bad as it is today, it will intensify before it improves. In March CARE surveyed families in the hardest hit parts of Niger and found every one of them was cutting back on meals to make food stocks last until the next harvest. The next harvest is not until October.

"We know from our experience that the best way to react to a disaster is to prevent it from happening in the first place."

Like the drought and subsequent hunger crisis that killed tens of thousands of people in the Horn of Africa last year, the Sahel emergency did not need become a disaster. The emergency wasn’t just predictable, it was predicted. In fact, many who live and work in the Sahel say the current crisis, as severe as it is, shouldn’t be considered an emergency at all. Instead, we should think of it as the “new normal.”

The Sahel’s rainy seasons are getting shorter and harder for farmers to forecast. Droughts that used to occur once every few decades are now happening once every few years. Helping the people of the Sahel and other parts of Africa escape an accelerating cycle of drought and hunger requires rethinking how we respond.

We know from our experience that the best way to react to a disaster is to prevent it from happening in the first place. If your goal is to make sure people in the Sahel, or any of Africa’s poorest communities, have enough food to live, the best approach is to help farmers improve their irrigation techniques, offer them access to drought-tolerant seeds and develop community-led savings groups that help entire towns build and store assets. An emergency is less likely to become a disaster when communities have what they need to take care of themselves.

Acknowledging the “new normal” and shifting our focus to helping people make their communities new thinking and new resources from governments, donors and aid organizations. But over time, it will require a lot less money than we already spend reacting to disasters after they happen.

In 2005, former UN Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs Jan Egeland famously noted that it cost $80 per day to treat a child suffering from severe malnutrition, but only $1 per day to prevent malnutrition in the same child. Put another way, understanding the “new normal” in the Sahel and across Africa means understanding that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, then acting accordingly.