Switching from food to cash grants except in those cases where food cannot be provided locally may be the key, argued Degan Ali of Adeso, an advocacy group for development in Africa, at the Rockefeller event. Such "flexible interventions" give the poor the ability to invest in their homes and villages rather than abandon everything and become permanent refugees.
In fact, one of the goals of humanitarian assistance now is preventative: keep people home rather than trekking to refugee camps, argued Rajiv Shah, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, at the event. Interventions that have been proved to work in that regard are as simple as selling off livestock or providing fodder for lactating goats. These ideas "solve the problem in a far more fundamental manner than rushing in with food aid," Shah argued—a fact that has been born out in academic research for the past several decades.
At the same time, the world will continue to urbanize, as one-time villagers abandon everything and move to the city for a better life. That may improve economic circumstances but it also tends to increase the impact of natural disasters. Floods are more devastating, thanks to migrant villagers building in neglected floodplains or other undesirable areas.
So finding new ways to fund environmental improvement and economic development at the same time will be crucial. And a new project in western Kenya may provide an all too unique example of how the two might be linked.
The LifeStraw is a plastic tube with a hollow-fiber membrane tucked inside. The membrane filters out bacteria, particles, viruses and other nasty stuff from freshwater, making it safe for drinking according to both U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and World Health Organization standards. That is no small thing in the all too many parts of the world where there is no guarantee that drinking water will not induce illness. All told, nearly one billion people worldwide lack access to such safe drinking water—a long-standing humanitarian crisis.
More than 870,000 households in western Kenya now have family-size capacity versions of these straws, part of a program to deliver, maintain and make sure such potentially life-saving technology is used. And this humanitarian program is funded by selling carbon dioxide emission reductions.
What's the connection between CO2 and humanitarian aid? One word: firewood. In the absence of the LifeStraw, these Kenyan families must boil their water to ensure its safety. To do so, they must gather extra firewood (more than that they would need just for cooking), which spurs both bigger the cutting down of trees as well as times when such critical safety practices have to be skipped due to a lack of resources. Skipping even one day of safe drinking water can mean a health disaster. "It's not a vaccine. You can't relax and stop using it," Vestergaard Frandsen says. As it stands, more than 1.5 million children die of diarrheal disease annually around the world, mostly due to bad drinking water.
In order to generate its 2.7 million metric tons worth of verified emission reductions to date, the LifeStraw effort sends field workers out every six months to ensure the technology is both working and being used—and have committed to keep doing so for a decade. Already, according to the company, they are "seeing a statistically significant reduction in the odds of a child under five presenting at a clinic with diarrhea," Vestergaard Frandsen says. Each LifeStraw can filter at least 18,000 liters—enough to supply a family of four for three years with their clean drinking water needs.