The African nations of Somalia, Kenya, and Ethiopia were reeling in 2011 and 2012 from the region’s worst drought in 60 years. Malnutrition and death rates soared, crops failed, livestock died and food prices skyrocketed. At the height of the crisis, more than 13 million people were in need of life-saving assistance.
The international community responded to the humanitarian crisis, with the United States providing $1.3 billion in aid to the region that included food, water, emergency health, nutritional care and other assistance.
Leading the large and complex American relief effort was Cara Christie, a disaster-operations specialist with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), who is credited with recognizing the significance of the impending famine almost a year before it unfolded. Christie convinced her superiors of the need to act and to be proactive instead of reactive by making advance preparations in the fall of 2010—a move that hastened aid to the region and saved lives.
“Because of her quick action and anticipation, hundreds of thousands of people were saved and their suffering was mitigated,” said Carol Chan, the acting director of USAID’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance (USAID/OFDA).
Chan said Christie and team members saw the warning signs and anticipated that a crisis was in the making after analyzing historical and current rainfall data, crop patterns, livestock health, market prices and malnutrition rates in the region. The data showed the negative trend, prompting Christie and her team to take steps to pre-position commodities and award grants ahead of the crisis. Christie also helped coordinate activities with other governments, international agencies and non-governmental organizations to speed relief to the most vulnerable.
“A drought is a very slow onset emergency. It looms and there are indicators and red flags before you feel the worst of it,” said Aimee Lauer, USAID/OFDA’s Program Support Division director. “If you respond at the right time in the cycle, the doom and gloom can be lessened. Cara was really responsible for getting the agency to pay attention to this before it hit full crisis. Droughts are a chronic problem in the Horn of Africa, so Cara had to recognize that this problem was larger than the usual.”
Lauer described Christie as “the voice of this crisis in terms of what the U.S. government needed to do.”
“She was able to design responses that met the needs and kept the trains running,” said Lauer.
Colleagues said Christie applied lessons from previous drought responses and recommended a multi-tiered strategy to address the emergency needs. It included pairing health, nutrition, water and sanitation programs with a blend of direct food assistance and more flexible cash and voucher programs that could reach people in remote areas.
Katherine Channell, a division chief at USAID and Christie’s supervisor, said, “Cara is incredibly professional and very thoughtful in what she says. She doesn’t raise things unnecessarily, so when she does, people really start to listen.”
James Fleming, USAID/OFDA’s director of operations, said Christie gained the trust of the senior management, and was “unflappable” in stressful situations. “She was so calm, collected and strategic. She was able to manage all of the pressure on her team,” he said.
The drought and lack of food in the Horn of Africa region was complicated by a number of factors, including conflict across southern and central Somalia and in localized areas of Kenya and Ethiopia. This insecurity caused massive numbers of people to be displaced, while also restricting access to those who most needed assistance.
In February 2012, the United Nations declared Somalia’s famine over, and officials said the assistance from the international community contributed to the survival of millions of people. But officials warned that more than two million Somalis were still in dire need of assistance, and that in the whole Horn of Africa region, millions of people remain dependent on humanitarian assistance to survive.
Christie said the role of the United States was critical in helping the people in the region during the height of the crisis, and that it was imperative for action to be taken as early as possible to save lives. Her job, she said, was to alert the leadership that 13 million people needed help across the region” and to “make sure people in government understood why it was important.”
“There was a sense that we could really do something about what was happening in the Horn of Africa,” said Christie.