CANADEM's Humanitarian Response in Angola
~ Feeding Hope ~
Santiago Perez Crespo with WFP in Angola
Emergency Program Officer
Up until one year ago Angola was a relatively calm country that had managed to overcome her recent conflicted past and was making steady progress towards middle-income status. But at the end of 2021 the alarms started sounding over the worrying malnutrition levels in some parts of the country as a result of a decade of accumulated failed rains. The scarce statistical data available indicated that the situation was rapidly deteriorating in the arid and semi-arid areas of the south, in the border with Namibia, where the population survives mostly on farming and livestock rearing.
The Angolan Government and the UN agencies scrambled to respond, and the World Food Program (WFP) was at the forefront of the humanitarian initiatives, setting up malnutrition management programs in three provinces (including the capital, Luanda) and planning for additional ones in other provinces. However, soon into the response, it became clear that more capacity was needed and, upon the generous offering of the Foreign and Commonwealth Development Office (FCDO, the British Government’s humanitarian and development assistance agency) three emergency specialists were deployed, two to WFP (my colleague Prabhu Govindaraj as Emergency Logistics Officer and myself as Emergency Program Officer) and one (Bruno Neto as Emergency Officer), to the UN Office for Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs.
Having worked in emergencies for over two decades in more than 20 different countries, I never made much of the difficulties of my job and everything that comes with it, like mobilizing on a short notice and landing in a country within days of being contacted; adapting to a new culture and environment; integrating quickly into pre-existing teams or having to build new ones while keeping a high level of performance. I came to think that anyone could do that, and I must confess that I started developing a mild case of “impostor syndrome”. However, this assignment in Angola has put things in the right perspective for me, making me understand that there is indeed good value for money in calling upon experienced SBP.
The WFP Country Office in Angola is relatively young (the mission re-opened only in 2019, after more than a decade inactive) and, until this crisis hit, it was only working with Congolese refugees and trying to set up a development program. Those activities were soon overcome by the emergency response and its food distributions, the Community Management of Acute Malnutrition (CMAM) programs, and the School Feeding interventions, all set up within months. While doing this, WFP learnt the hard way how difficult it is to shift gears and move from a development program to an emergency operation, as they require completely different skill sets and attitudes from the team. And this is where we, the Standby Partners, entered the scene.
Right off the bat, I was amazed to see how my colleague Prabhu hit the ground running, taking over, all by himself, the responsibility of a monthly food distribution for 3,000 families in a very remote and inaccessible area of the country, facing all sorts of administrative and logistic challenges, all the while building the capacity of the Government counterpart. And, in my case, after a short period of uncertainty, I was assigned the task of opening a new a field office and to start up a new malnutrition treatment program in Namibe Province. In the six months I have been in Angola I have been privileged to witness the way the country team has grown into a stronger, more cohesive group. And I am very happy to see that the energy that we invested building strong relationships with the local provincial Governments has borne fruit with time. And these are my two main takeaways from this mission that is about to end.
Sadly, due to the nature of my current assignment, I do not have colorful or dramatic field stories to tell after five months in Angola. I do have, however, the satisfaction of having witnessed firsthand how a team can achieve great things if rallied by adequate leadership. For instance, we have reduced the time required to set up a new program to a fraction of what it took in previous occasions. Communication has become more fluid among staff members, who now feel more at ease planning and staying a few steps ahead of the process to identify and avoid choke points that could stall the program. They also seem more open to implementing ideas that, although new in Angola, are mainstay elsewhere, like the development of online, interactive dashboards with maps that will enable us to visualize and analyze program data at the click of a button.
I am particularly proud of the level of cooperation achieved with the provincial Government of Namibe Province, where I am located, which is based on the recognition that we are working towards the same objective. We take advantage of any opportunity we find to try and benefit from each other’s work. For instance, in the course of a recent recruitment process, after analyzing more than 400 applications from local candidates, WFP and the provincial Government realized that CV and application writing was a major skill gap among young professionals in the province, which put them at a disadvantage vis a vis the candidates from Luanda, the capital. So, I volunteered to organize, in conjunction with the Provincial Government, an open session to explain the basic principles of a recruitment process carried out by international humanitarian organizations, to discuss the major shortcomings in the applications that we received, and to explain how to write a professional CV and a successful motivation letter.
In parallel with this initiative, we are encouraging other humanitarian organizations to provide internship opportunities to young graduates so they can gain professional experience. Another initiative that we are developing on the sidelines of our program consists of facilitating the linkage of the epidemiological data from the Provincial Health Department with WFP’s dashboard, to enable data analysis on a more visual manner.
Overall, I am very happy with the impact that my mission is having in the emergency response of my receiving agency, and I am only sad to leave without seeing it through till the end.