Our east Africa representative, Karen Peachey, has been working in the region – or supporting work there – for over 20 years. She answers some questions about our response to east Africa’s food crisis.

One year since the British Red Cross launched its East Africa Food Crisis Appeal, what is the situation?
Rains have been good in many parts of the region and this has improved the overall food security situation. However, the rains have not come in some areas – which means some communities are still at risk.

In many areas of the region, people living in arid or semi-arid areas are vulnerable as they have few resources – such as money or livestock. They also have less access to services like health and education than other parts of the country. When there is a crisis, these people are affected more easily than those who have more resources.

Different factors affect different areas. Last year in south Somalia, for example, the situation became extreme as conflict, rising food prices and several failed rains came together. Conflict there is still going on and this continues to put communities at risk.

Did the Red Cross response in the region make a difference?
The Red Cross has made a huge difference. It helped with immediate life-saving work and continues to invest in work that aims to reduce long-term vulnerability.

In Somalia, the Red Cross was one of the few organisations able to reach vulnerable people and give food to those in greatest need. This support made a huge difference, with food distributions reaching over 2.1 million people.

As well as providing food, the Somali Red Crescent runs health clinics throughout the country, providing much-needed services. This work continues day in, day out, every year. During the crisis, the clinics were used as the basis for scaling up work in order to reach more people in need.

In Kenya, the Kenyan Red Cross has been running one of the parts of the Dadaab refugee camp, known as Ifo II. When some other agencies had to withdraw because of insecurity, it continued to provide services. As a result of its work, malnutrition rates dropped dramatically. However, the problems refugees face are on-going, and more money is needed to sustain these improvements.

How do we stop this crisis happening over and over again?
There is need for much greater investment in work that will help increase the resilience of communities – making them less vulnerable to crisis. Indeed, the Red Cross has just launched a call for action [PDF] to this end.

Making communities more resilient will take time and resources, there’s no quick fix.

How was the Red Cross able to deal with such a large crisis, over so many – very different – regions?
One of the things that makes the Red Cross unique is that it is a Movement of 188 National Societies, with millions of volunteers across the world. These volunteers work with their own communities – using the training they receive from the Red Cross and applying it within a context they understand.

The wider Movement is able to support its sister societies in times of crisis, mobilising resources and providing technical support. As a Movement, we are very fortunate to have highly skilled and motivated volunteers and staff across the world.

On a day-to-day basis, what does the Red Cross do to make sure that every penny donated is effectively spent?
There are various ways. For instance, the fact that we work with huge numbers of volunteers means we can reach many people in a cost-effective way.

We invest in actions that will help strengthen communities and make them less vulnerable to disasters. This is better for the communities, and more cost-effective than responding once people have already fallen into crisis.

We also seek to make ourselves accountable both to those who give us money and to the communities we are seeking to assist.

What effect does not having enough to eat have on other aspects of a person’s life?
Just think how you would feel. Lack of food affects every aspect of life, with both short-term and longer-term health consequences. It also increases vulnerability to disease, as the body is less able to cope.

As food becomes short, people sell their assets – livestock and other resources – to be able to buy something to eat. Often the food prices in markets are higher than usual too. This often means people can no longer afford to send their children to school and it is harder for families to recover when the immediate crisis is over.

What are the best and worst things you’ve seen in your role?
I prefer to focus on the best things – the worst things are what made the news last year and people are most aware of.

What people hear less of are the incredible stories of resilience and determination. For example, families who are determined to keep their children in school – despite the odds – as they see that as the best chance of a different life for their children.

Similarly, the work of volunteers and staff – who give so much of themselves, and respond again and again.