Malawi's flooding has inflicted trauma, but UK aid is helping to rebuild lives

Philip Smith, deputy head of the UK's aid programme in Malawi, explains how the Department for International Development is helping the country respond to devastating floods

By Philip Smith

16 Mar 2015

Over the last few months, torrential rains have destroyed homes and farmland across much of southern Africa. In Malawi, floods have affected over 600,000 people and claimed over 100 lives. As deputy head of the UK’s aid programme in Malawi, I’ve been coordinating the UK’s humanitarian response with the Dfid team here.

Malawi hasn’t seen flooding like this for over 50 years. In the first 24 hours following the floods, we had to work quickly, with the United Nations and others, to divert resources and mobilise our partners to support the humanitarian response. UK aid is providing food to 370,000 people and emergency water and sanitation for 34,000 people in displacement camps.

As the floods have receded, our focus has turned to supporting thousands of people to rebuild their homes and their livelihoods. I recently visited flood-affected areas to launch the UK’s recovery programme – providing seeds, tools and cook stoves to over 100,000 families. 

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Talking to impoverished families who have lost what little they had, you get a clear sense of the trauma that people are going through. But it is heartening to see how the UK’s aid is helping people to rebuild their lives. These tragic events underscore the need to build greater disaster resilience in countries like Malawi, particularly for those living in chronic poverty.

I arrived in Malawi in August last year after working for Dfid in Nepal. Dfid works in the world’s poorest countries, and Malawi and Nepal share many characteristics of deep-rooted poverty. Natural disasters seem to feature heavily in my work; in Nepal I lead work to build community awareness and preparedness for a major earthquake. Nepal’s capital, Kathmandu, is the world’s most vulnerable city to an earthquake.

I’ve worked for Dfid for the last twelve years, and have been overseas for half of that time. Although dragging your family around the globe has its challenges, I enjoy my job. It’s a privilege to work for a department with such a fantastic mission – reducing world poverty. My job here in Malawi involves overseeing delivery of the UK’s £60m aid programme, which includes support in health, education, agriculture, disaster resilience, economic development, water and sanitation, access to justice for women, and governance reforms. I spend much of my time engaging with government officials and counterparts in development partner missions and multilateral agencies like the EU, UN and World Bank. I also work closely with the Scottish government, which has its own aid programme here.

The poverty reduction challenge in Malawi is huge. Average life expectancy is only 55 years. Ninety per cent of people here live without electricity. A staggeringly low 28% of girls manage to finish primary school. Population growth is astounding – the number of people here is expected to double from 13 million in 2010 to 26 million by 2030. Corruption is widespread. Indeed, the UK froze all direct financial aid to the government of Malawi in 2013.

But despite these challenges, Dfid is delivering results for poor people here. UK aid is procuring essential drugs and medical supplies for health clinics; the UK helped 5.2 million people to vote in elections last year; over 350,000 women have access family planning services with UK support since 2011; and, by the end of 2016, UK aid will have helped over 750,000 people to benefit from safer water and improved sanitation.

Looking forward, 2015 should bring a new set of sustainable development goals and a global deal on climate change. We in the UK Government must play our part, and make the most of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to help those families trapped in abject poverty in poor countries like Nepal and Malawi.

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