What does amaranth have to do with emergency aid? More than you think. Amaranth is one of the world’s oldest crops, and was already used as a staple food by the Incas and the Aztecs. In Switzerland the plant, which is also known as pigweed, is no longer used as a food. It offers many advantages, however: it is filling, it is easy to cultivate, tough and grows within three weeks. And saves lives.
In Niger, for example, where a famine disaster has been brewing for the past year. In the summer, the fields were destroyed first by torrential rain and then by drought. “I couldn’t harvest a single sack,” says a desperate Dommo Issaka, a farmer from the village of Kankandi. More than 2.3 million people were confronted with empty granaries in late autumn. The adversity faced by one of the world’s poorest countries was – and still is – huge. Thanks to its strong local roots, SWISSAID was one of the first aid organisations to recognise the hunger crisis, and an emergency aid project was launched within a very short time. At the local seed banks we have been running together with local farmers for decades, we quickly obtained seeds of the nutritious amaranth plant and distributed them to the smallholder families. Sowing was carried out shortly afterwards, and the first seeds and leaves landed in cooking pots just three weeks later. Together with the food parcels provided, this is helping to feed around 5,000 families for the time being.
The war and hunger
In parallel to this activity, longterm development assistance has continued in the communities, involving aspects such as women’s empowerment, an important step in the fight against hunger; the construction of wells for better irrigation of gardens; knowledge of local, ancient and resilient plant species, such as amaranth, but also Fonio millet or Lablab bean, which defy climate change. And the rapid restoration of markets, so that the beneficiaries in the region can get back on their feet as soon as possible.
This combination of our expertise in sustainable agriculture, our strong network in the country – which enables us to provide rapid and locally based aid – and the possibility of offering people a long-term perspective, supporting and empowering them in their independence, is an example of SWISSAID’s approach to emergency aid: rapid response paired with staying power.
Whether in Niger due to destroyed crops, in Nicaragua in the wake of a devastating cyclone, in India where people were hit especially hard by the Covid pandemic, or in Myanmar where riots and the pandemic made daily work almost impossible and emergency aid became essential. SWISSAID helped a total of over 200,000 people with its emergency aid projects in 2021.
Aid is changing
These humanitarian missions are likely to become even more important in the coming years. Experts are anticipating a global hunger crisis as a result of the war in Ukraine – in addition to all of the suffering experienced in the country itself. Both Ukraine and Russia are known as the breadbaskets of the world, and for good reason.
Prices have already risen sharply – from a starting point that that was itself already high. The situation is escalating in the Global South in particular, where weather extremes are also becoming more frequent. What used to be considered extraordinary is now becoming the new reality. Drought, torrential rain and storms take turns to destroy both harvests and livelihoods, and geopolitical conflicts, civil wars and terrorist attacks cause hardship and misery.
Nicole Stolz, Head of the Development Cooperation Department, visited the place in Niger where the emergency aid project is taking place. Here, the first sowing of emergency seeds to ward off the predicted famine.
“Those who are fighting acute hunger, those whose livelihoods are threatened, are not interested in long-term projects, but need help right away,” says Nicole Stolz, Head of Development Cooperation. The Triple Nexus is an important principle for achieving a sustainable impact in a world of increasing uncertainty. “This is a combination of rapid humanitarian aid, long-term development cooperation and peacebuilding,” explains Stolz.
SWISSAID focuses exclusively on the emergency situations in its nine project countries, were it has strong roots and the necessary local network. The nature of the emergency aid required is determined together with partners and beneficiaries, with a joint approach being taken to find a way out of the acute crisis. Ultimately it is a question of strengthening the resilience of people and the environment, but also of society, in the long term. Or, to return to the pigweed – the word “amaranth” derives from the Greek for “unfading”, and this is also how we would like to characterise our work.