MCC’s humanitarian response to conflict in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Jordan

[Individual articles from the Fall 2019 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

In its largest humanitarian response since World War II, MCC has programmed more than US$63.4 million to respond to conflict and displacement in Syria since 2012 and Iraq since 2014. MCC’s response programming spans four countries—both Syria and Iraq, along with neighboring Lebanon and Jordan, who host large refugee populations relative to their national size. In these countries, MCC works in close partnership with church relief organizations, Islamic charitable societies, national non-governmental organizations and community-based organizations.

Staff of the Middle East Council of Churches (MECC) unloaded a humanitarian aid shipment that was sent in October 2018 from the West Europe Mennonite Regional Conference and MCC to MECC’s warehouse in Dara’a, Syria. The materials will be distributed in Dara’a due to the 270,000 people that were displaced in the region in June 2018 (the largest single displacement in the area since the Syrian conflict began). Names not provided for security reasons. (Photo courtesy of Middle East Council of Churches)

Through these partnerships, MCC responds to urgent and ongoing humanitarian needs of refugees and internally displaced people, including food and cash assistance, shelter rehabilitation, rent support and provision of essential household and hygiene items. While most items are purchased locally, MCC also ships in-kind hygiene items, blankets and other humanitarian assistance from Canada, the U.S. and Europe to be distributed as part of its response. Over the past seven years, MCC has shipped humanitarian aid valued at over US$11 million.

Children, ages 3-5, enjoy the magician’s rabbit trick during a magic show at their school. This is one of the schools in southern Lebanon that MCC funds through partner Popular Aid for Relief and Development (PARD). MCC staff collaborated with school staff to invite the magician to perform at all the MCC-supported schools as an extension to MCC’s kindergarten education project which includes psychosocial training. PARD has worked many years in Palestinian areas in southern Lebanon and began including psychosocial activities to give Syrian and Palestinian refugees tools to address trauma and an opportunity to express themselves and grow in confidence. Names are withheld for security reasons. (Photo courtesy of PARD)

MCC and its partners also address the needs of people impacted by conflict beyond the provision of food and other humanitarian support. As displacement interrupts or limits access to education for children and youth, MCC provides support for formal and remedial education programs. MCC also promotes positive relationships between host and displaced communities and between different ethnic and religious groups in order to prevent intercommunal tension and to promote peace. In recognition of the immense trauma experienced by conflict-affected families, MCC programs provide trauma healing support and psychological care, along with building the skills of partners to respond to psychological needs. As the nature of the conflict in Syria and Iraq and the circumstances of affected people change, MCC adjusts its programming to better address the evolving needs and situations on the ground. Now as some displaced families begin returning to their homes, MCC explores ways to provide empowering and sustainable humanitarian assistance.

As evident from several of the articles within this issue of Intersections, large-scale and long-term humanitarian response to conflict in Syria and Iraq has challenged MCC and its partners to develop skills for effectively responding to the differing needs of women, children and men within difficult circumstances. Although the needs continue to be immense and resources are limited, MCC’s response in Syria, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon has reached hundreds of thousands of people impacted by conflict, political instability and displacement—all in the name of Christ.

Amy Martens is an MCC humanitarian assistance coordinator, based in Winnipeg.

Peacebuilding and social cohesion in humanitarian response in Nigeria

[Individual articles from the Fall 2019 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

MCC Nigeria and its partners, the Emergency Preparedness and Response Teams (EPRT) and the Ekklesiya Yan’uwa A Nijeriya (EYN, or the Church of the Brethren in Nigeria), have found that integrating conflict sensitivity into humanitarian assistance initiatives is critical for the success of these projects and for promoting social cohesion within societies torn apart by violent conflict. Conducting a careful conflict analysis during the project design phase and then building on local capacities for peace during project implementation help the project avoid exacerbating tensions within the pluralistic Nigerian context in which intercommunal relationships have deteriorated and in which suspicion between groups allows mutual mistrust and even hatred and enmity to flourish, leading to violence.

In the last two decades, violent conflicts in and around Jos, Nigeria (where MCC Nigeria’s office is located), have increased, resulting in devastating losses of life and destruction of property. These conflicts primarily stem from battles for control of and access to resources, even as different identities (such as religious and ethnic identities) are mobilized to enflame these conflicts. Nearly two decades ago, MCC worked with Nigerian leaders in the Jos area to establish an organization, EPRT, committed to nonviolent conflict prevention. A network of Nigerian Muslim and Christian leaders in and around Jos, EPRT undertakes proactive action to mitigate conflicts amongst peoples of differing faiths and ethnic groups. EPRT also carries out humanitarian assistance in Jos’s religiously and ethnically mixed context. In carrying out these emergency humanitarian initiatives, EPRT has achieved success by incorporating numerous conflict sensitivity practices into its humanitarian initiatives, such as: interfaith and inter-agency collaboration, which creates a conducive environment for program delivery and which minimizes suspicion across religious lines; inclusion of women as part of emergency response teams, thus helping to ensure that women in affected communities speak into project design and that the needs of women and children are thus considered at all stages of the project cycle; and using community-based volunteers who represent different faiths. These strategies have decisively contributed to the success of EPRT’s work. 

In developing interventions in complex crisis situations, humanitarian actors must consider dividers (actions we want to stop or attitudes we want to change) and connectors (actions and attitudes we want to encourage). Humanitarian interventions in a conflictual context become part of that context, making it essential for humanitarian organizations to commit to a Do No Harm approach in their distribution of relief aid. In planning its humanitarian interventions, EPRT first analyzes dividers that drive intercommunal conflict and potential connectors that can help mitigate such conflict and then integrates that analysis in the design of its humanitarian responses so that they do not heighten interreligious or intergroup tension but rather create room for peaceful coexistence.

Humanitarian actors may have worthy goals and seek to meet basic human needs, but if they do not incorporate conflict sensitivity into project planning and implementation, serious harms can materialize for project participants.

EPRT collaborates with 11 Nigerian organizations, with a balance of Christian and Muslim organizations and of organizations led by women and men. This diverse network of program partnerships strengthens EPRT’s efforts to reduce violent emergencies in Nigeria’s Plateau State where Jos is located. EPRT’s activities include the establishment of peace clubs in schools, leading Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) workshops, conducting needs assessments and environmental impact assessments, distributing humanitarian relief and maintaining an early warning system that mobilizes Nigerian religious leaders and peacebuilders to proactively respond early on in preventing intercommunal tensions from turning violent.

A recent relief distribution carried out by EPRT with MCC support in four informal camps for displaced Nigerians as well as in the surrounding host communities of Rawuru, Kworos, Barkin-Ladi and Kassa used participatory approaches during the design process, so that beneficiaries were involved in all aspects of the response. Beneficiaries actively joined in identifying family and community strengths and capacities, prioritizing household and community needs, securing logistical and planning support, implementing project activities (with implementation carried out by gender-balanced, interfaith teams) and monitoring the distribution of relief items. EPRT invests time and efforts to secure the support of various religious and community leaders, given the fact that these critical stakeholders have tremendous social power and capital that can be used to help or hinder humanitarian responses. By involving beneficiaries and local leaders in project design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation, EPRT enhances local ownership and acceptance of the project. This local ownership also means that EPRT receives timely and candid feedback from beneficiaries and local leaders about the strengths and weaknesses of its humanitarian responses. EPRT’s humanitarian interventions not only meet the needs of displaced persons and vulnerable members of host communities, but also seek to strengthen interreligious tolerance and build common ground by creating shared safe spaces for relationship-building across ethno-religious lines. Although the violent crises that had erupted in the Jos area were perceived by Nigerian Christians as being driven by Muslims, EPRT based its relief distributions on need, not on religion, creed or social status, recognizing that impartial aid distributions have the potential to build social cohesion in a context in which some actors seek to create and widen divisions along religious lines.

An experience of an attempted relief distribution in Gurku camp by a Muslim organization offers a second example of the importance of a conflict sensitivity approach in planning the distribution of relief items in an interfaith context. This Muslim group had planned to distribute relief assistance only to Muslims during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan within a formal camp setting that included Muslims and Christians. Given that the households in the camp were from different faith groups, the Muslim camp officials refused the relief items, insisting that until all IDPs in the camp benefited regardless of religious affiliation, the distribution could not take place. Camp leaders had participated in workshops organized by EYN on the Healing and Rebuilding our Communities (HROC) approach from Rwanda, which had emphasized the importance of considering conflict drivers and connectors when developing humanitarian responses and thus prepared community leaders to ask critical questions about humanitarian initiatives like this one proposed by a Muslim organization that would have had negative consequences in fracturing social cohesion.

Humanitarian actors may have worthy goals and seek to meet basic human needs, but if they do not incorporate conflict sensitivity into project planning and implementation, serious harms can materialize for project participants. Care must be taken to ensure that cultural norms and religious doctrines do not disrupt the distribution of humanitarian assistance and that the project does not create more conflict by ignoring cultural norms.

Issa Chung, a local Emergency Preparedness and Response Team (EPRT) member in the Bukuru community of Jos, Nigeria, presents at a meeting in March 2018. Local EPRT teams, a collaboration between MCC and JDPC (Justice Development and Peace CARITAS) seek to build and promote sustainable peace, resulting in the reduction of election violence, community conflict and emergencies/crises in Plateau State creating a culture of harmony and acceptance among secondary school age children throughout Plateau State. (MCC Photo/ Allan Reesor-McDowell)

For decades, MCC in Nigeria has worked alongside partners like EPRT and EYN to meet basic human needs, address injustices and rebuild communities that were previously segregated along religious lines. Through these efforts, MCC and its partners have discovered that integrating conflict sensitivity and peacebuilding into the heart of every project, promoting social cohesion across differences and building interreligious capacities for peace are essential for the success of humanitarian interventions.

Hyeladzira Balami is administrative and finance assistant for MCC Nigeria.

The Do No Harm Project. The “Do No Harm” Framework for Analyzing the Impact of Assistance on Conflict: A Handbook. Cambridge, MA: CDA Collaborative Learning Projects, 2004. Available at

Diversion and humanitarian assistance in South Sudan

[Individual articles from the Fall 2019 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

Cropped image
Nyang Jawu Nyanpiu is one of more than 1,000 households that received food items such as sorghum, beans, cooking oil and salt in South Sudan’s Rubkona, Pariang and Bentiu counties.

Nyanpiu, who is in her early 70s, lost her family members during conflict in her home village and fled to the Pariang camp IDPs where her only surviving son died of an unknown illness. (MCC Photo/Patrict Mulu)

The positive and negative impacts of humanitarian assistance can be viewed through two primary lenses: first, the direct impact from the transfer of aid in meeting basic human needs; and second, the ethical message conveyed in the provision of assistance. In this article, I examine a key factor that humanitarian agencies in conflict settings that plan food assistance interventions must consider, namely, diversion. My discussion of diversion builds on MCC’s experience in supporting food assistance projects implemented by a South Sudanese church relief organization among famine-affected internally displaced peoples in the part of South Sudan formerly known as Unity State (in 2015, the South Sudanese government divided Unity State into the three new states of Ruweng, Northern Liech and Southern Liech).

Diversion in humanitarian assistance refers to actions that, by altering the intended distribution of relief items, results in humanitarian assistance being reduced, not reaching or being delayed in reaching intended beneficiaries, or being used for something other than its intended purpose. One type of diversion involves actions by political officials or by armed groups (such as the police, the military or non-state actors) to intercept and divert humanitarian assistance away from the intended beneficiaries. Another type of diversion, however, happens when project participants themselves use humanitarian assistance they receive for something other than the planned-for purpose. Selling food assistance is a classic example of such diversion. Another type of diversion happens when beneficiaries share assistance they receive with family, friends and neighbors. My focus in this article will be on this latter type of diversion of humanitarian assistance by project participants.

A concrete example will help clarify the issues at stake in diversion. In December 2018, staff with the Episcopal Church for South Sudan-South Sudanese Development and Relief Agency (ECSS-SUDRA) conducted a survey of internally displaced peoples (IDPs) in the former Unity State who had received food assistance through a project implemented by ECSS-SUDRA with support from MCC and the Canadian Foodgrains Bank (CFGB). The survey revealed that the supported beneficiaries had shared, sold and diverted part of the food they had received through the project, rather than keeping all of it for their household food needs (the intended purpose).

When ECSS-SUDRA staff asked why this diversion had happened, beneficiaries gave multiple responses. For many, diverting food assistance they had received represented a way to help relatives and friends who had newly arrived and settled in the camp. Conflict often separates members of extended and even nuclear families from one another. In contrast, stability and food in times of need bring family members together. Food aid recipients therefore sought to share this assistance with their extended relatives who also experienced need. Not only that, but the ECSS-SUDRA survey found that some food aid recipients also shared a portion of their food aid with newly arrived IDPs, both with IDPs coming from their home communities and with returnees from distant internal displacement camps and refugee settlements.

Ubuntu is an ancient African worldview based on the primary values of humanness, caring, sharing, respect and compassion, values that help ensure happiness and well-being within family and community: within this worldview, sharing one’s resources with family, friends and neighbors is a cultural imperative.

Another cause of diversion by beneficiaries was that some items in the distributed food parcels were not readily usable in the form provided. So, for example, beneficiaries reported that they lacked money to have the sorghum that came in the food package ground into flour: they therefore sold the sorghum for cash. Recipients who sold items from the food package reported doing so in order to meet other priority needs, such as the purchase of soap or meat or for covering medical expenses.

Still other recipients viewed the food assistance as an opportunity to start a business. In some cases, recipients sold food assistance to access startup capital. Others who already had access to some capital used those funds to grind the sorghum they received into flour for baking bread that they then sold, increasing household income.

The types of diversions described above are common when humanitarian agencies distribute food assistance in conflict situations. Humanitarian agencies like MCC might sometimes unreflectively assume that food is the primary, or even sole, need of IDPs and other vulnerable groups, yet such peoples, who may have no regular sources of income, have other basic needs, including health, hygiene and education. Diversion in these instances represents a creative attempt by beneficiaries to meet multiple needs through food aid which had originally been intended to meet only basic nutritional and diet diversity needs.

When the number of people who end up benefiting from humanitarian assistance surpasses the originally planned scope of the project, one reasonably deduces that diversion by beneficiaries has occurred. So, for example, ECSS-SUDRA found through its survey that the household sizes reported at the end of the project varied from what was originally projected, resulting in the project reaching more households than anticipated in the initial plan. Households expanded as IDPs welcomed members of their extended families. Also, the number of overall beneficiaries of the project expanded as recipients shared and consumed food aid with their friends and relatives.

Humanitarian agencies like MCC and ECSS-SUDRA seek to ensure that the amount of food aid distributed is appropriate and effective for the size of the households receiving the assistance. Yet, in bantu contexts like the areas where ECSS-SUDRA operate, people hold strongly to the communal value of ubuntu. Ubuntu is an ancient African worldview based on the primary values of humanness, caring, sharing, respect and compassion, values that help ensure happiness and well-being within family and community: within this worldview, sharing one’s resources with family, friends and neighbors is a cultural imperative. Ubuntu calls on people to show basic respect and compassion for others, based on a recognition of how people are defined by communal relations: “I am because we are, and since we are, therefore I am.” One’s neighbor’s survival is a precondition of one’s own survival: sharing the food one has, including food assistance one has received, is a duty. One is not separate from family members who have also had to run away from their homes and villages, nor is one separate from friends and neighbors, including new neighbors in an IDP camp. Ubuntu calls people to extend food and brotherly embrace. While humanitarian assistance project plans may give clear instructions about beneficiary selection, the communal value of ubuntu disrupts these plans through its spirit of sharing.

There are several steps that can be taken to minimize negative types of diversion in the delivery of humanitarian assistance. These include improved planning, needs assessments, regular monitoring, integration of priority needs into holistic assistance packages, provision of assistance that can have long-term benefits and empowerment of and coordination with local actors to prevent duplication of support. Yet, as the ECSS-SUDRA experience in South Sudan shows, not all forms of diversion by beneficiaries are harmful. Indeed, when recipients of food aid share those resources with extended families and social networks, they extend the benefit of food assistance and help foster social cohesion, even if these benefits were not part of the original project planning.

Amos Okello is MCC representative for South Sudan and Sudan.

United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, South Sudan.

Local church partnerships in humanitarian assistance

[Individual articles from the Fall 2016 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

One question I am asked by MCC supporters is: “When there is a disaster, how does MCC decide who receives relief and who doesn’t?” This article attempts to answer that question by exploring the opportunities and challenges of working with local church partners when responding to humanitarian crises and disasters. In particular, this short piece explores the challenges in targeting, meeting minimum humanitarian standards and the potential for peacebuilding through humanitarian assistance.

At this year’s World Humanitarian Summit international humanitarian actors committed to channel more resources into partnerships with local humanitarian actors. That commitment reflects MCC’s primary approach for the last few decades: executing humanitarian activities almost entirely through local partners in recognition of their unique access and capacity to respond appropriately to people affected in their communities. MCC partners with a variety of local civil society organizations such as churches, denominational entities, faith-based organizations and community-based

In particular, MCC is committed to supporting local Anabaptist churches in responding to disaster. For example, this year MCC is working with the Brethren in Christ Church in responding to drought and acute hunger in Zimbabwe and Honduras and to flooding in Nepal. In Colombia and Ecuador, MCC works with local Mennonite organizations and churches to meet the needs of people displaced by conflict. And in eastern Congo and
India, MCC works with Christian ecumenical organizations where local Anabaptist churches are members.

One of the challenges in working with local churches is how best to target limited resources. Church leaders in communities affected by disaster and conflict often feel they should respond first to those in the family of faith. MCC was born in response to the call to Mennonites in Canada and the U.S. from fellow Mennonites in the Soviet Union to provide urgent food assistance, agricultural equipment and ultimately refugee resettlement assistance in Canada. Likewise, MCC’s current church partners are moved to assist those affected in their faith communities because they have direct relationships to church members and know their specific needs.

At times, this desire stands in tension with humanitarian principles requiring humanitarian actors to be impartial—that is, the principle that assistance should be provided based on need and vulnerability, without discrimination based on gender, ethnicity, race, ability or religious identity or affiliation. So while church partners may have the easiest access to people in their own congregations, they should also seek to support crisis-affected people outside the family of faith. Many of MCC’s church partners boldly respond beyond their immediate church family, faithfully answering the Christian call to love one’s neighbour, provide hospitality to strangers and care for the poor and vulnerable as well as and those perceived as enemies or outsiders.

Local church partners, particularly at the denominational leadership level, also face significant pressure to spread assistance across the denominational structure and a wide geographic area. At times, church leaders, with social and political pressure from the many congregations they serve, find it difficult to focus assistance. MCC is committed to
abiding by humanitarian standards, including Sphere minimum standards for disaster response that describe the essential conditions for ensuring that disaster-affected people can survive and live with dignity. People have the right to enough and appropriate food, shelter, water and medical assistance. Adhering to humanitarian guidelines requires MCC and our local partners to make difficult decisions about prioritizing the quality of assistance to a more limited number of disaster-affected communities instead of spreading resources too thin.

Working with local faith-based partners also gives MCC unique opportunities to engage in peacebuilding and conflict prevention when responding to conflict and disaster. MCC seeks to enhance capacities for peace when responding to disasters by building connections among diverse groups. In working with local church partners, MCC encourages their relationships with other local faith-based actors. In Nigeria, for example,
MCC supports the church in facilitating trauma healing with people from various religious groups, while in Syria local churches (Orthodox and Protestant) work with local Islamic charities to provide emergency assistance to both Muslims and Christians uprooted from their homes. By supporting local churches to build ecumenical partnerships and reach out beyond their walls, MCC accompanies churches in nurturing peace, reducing conflict and meeting urgent needs.

Bruce N. Guenther is MCC disaster response director.

Learn more:

Core Humanitarian Standard. Resources available at

The Sphere Project: Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Humanitarian Response. Resources available at

Bennett, Christina, with M. Foley and S. Pantuliano. Time to Let Go: Remaking Humanitarian Action for the Modern Era. London: Overseas Development Institute, 2016.

Crooks, Bill and J. Mouradian. Disasters and the Local Church: Guidelines for Church Leaders in Disaster-Prone Areas. Teddington, UK: Tearfund, 2011

Related articles:

Humanitarian assistance and social cohesion in Syria

Humanitarian assistance for sustainability in Colombia

One of the long-standing criticisms of humanitarian assistance initiatives is that they often respond to an immediate crisis, but do not leave beneficiaries in any position to re-integrate or resume lives once the assistance has ended. As a result, relief projects face an ongoing challenge as to how to allow beneficiaries to later re-integrate into society. Organizations ranging from non-governmental organizations all the way to United Nations institutions are confronted by the question of how to build sustainable development mechanisms into their humanitarian initiatives while at the same time addressing the underlying drivers of conflicts.

In Colombia, the ongoing armed conflict and the actions of illegal armed groups have led to millions of rural families being forcibly displaced to urban centers where they settle in the most marginalized slums on the outskirts of these receptor cities. The forcible displacement not only deprives these families of access to their livelihoods (land for farming), but also disrupts the social networks they rely on for support and often leaves them with few skills that translate to employment in urban contexts.

Within this context, MCC’s partner organization, Mencoldes (the social services organization of Colombian Mennonite and Mennonite Brethren churches), has been accompanying displaced families who have settled in the slums of Bogota and Ibague. Mencoldes has been implementing an MCC-supported project which seeks to combine both humanitarian responses to immediate displacement and the reintegration of these
internally displaced families into society. This integrated response unfolds in four phases:

1) Immediate stabilization: Recently displaced families in crisis receive food vouchers that will last for six months and household supplies to allow them to set up residence in the city slums with some degree of dignity. Mencoldes has made the shift from providing in-kind food baskets and household items to vouchers. This allows families to purchase culturally appropriate and diverse food supplies. Empowering families to select their own food increases household autonomy and decision-making power.

2) Pyscho-social support and human rights: Displaced families often suffer some form of trauma which impedes their ability to take actions for self-improvement, while also lacking an understanding of what rights they have under the state. Mencoldes carries out a series of seminars and workshops to help participants develop healthy responses to their trauma and understand what resources are available from the state for displaced families.

3) Economic strengthening: Mencoldes has developed an urban gardens component to help families with rural agricultural skills to apply these skills in their new urban contexts. This initiative has two intentions: first, to build the self-esteem of the participating families by allowing them to practice their crafts; and second, to encourage displaced families to develop a source of potential income or food consumption to increase their autonomy.

4) Mobilization and networking: Mencoldes seeks to strengthen social networks among displaced families in order to strengthen their social capital. Strengthened social networks could in turn form the basis of coalitions to advocate for the rights of displaced people to municipalities and other local authorities.

Within this integrated multi-component project, the humanitarian assistance component serves as the foundation to allow displaced families to begin rebuilding their lives. However, the distribution of food and other humanitarian assistance is the first in a series of development and organizing activities that seeks to allow the families to better reintegrate into Colombian society in their new urban contexts. This four-stage structure is Mencoldes’ response to the challenge of stabilizing and re-integrating families sustainably.

Terrence Jantzi is co-representative for MCC Colombia in Bogota, Colombia and associate professor at Eastern Mennonite University

Beyond doing no harm: reducing conflict through food assistance

Over ten million people in Iraq—almost a third of the country’s total population—are in need of humanitarian assistance, with food assistance being the ongoing priority need. Local, regional, national and international actors are using a variety of strategies to provide food and other assistance. However, the means of delivering this food assistance—how, when, by whom and for whom—impacts conflict dynamics far beyond the contents of the package. Tools like Do No Harm (DNH) examine how assistance is conducted in order to identify the likely negative consequences that may occur beyond immediate food consumption, but strategies for revising and shaping interventions to produce positive social impacts are more limited. Providing long-term, predictable and consistent food assistance as well as involving both displaced and host communities in the intervention are two actions that can improve security and reinforce the existing social fabric in otherwise unstable environments. These are positive impacts of humanitarian interventions that go beyond improving food consumption.

The Do No Harm framework provides tools to analyze how an intervention positively and negatively impacts its context. Distributing assistance along sectarian lines, undermining existing support systems or giving power to a certain group or individuals over others are all actions that fuel conflict. Conversely, actions motivated by respect, accountability, fairness and transparency (RAFT) serve to mitigate conflict. One of the key principles of DNH is that no negative impact is inevitable: there are always options to revise and improve programming. At the practical level, DNH recommends minimizing potential negative impact of humanitarian interventions by minimizing dividers that fuel conflict and maximizing connectors that strengthen social cohesion.

One of the main dividers that increases conflict and fuels tension in food assistance is a lack of predictable and consistent delivery. When a family receives food from different groups, in different amounts, in different ways and at different times (or not at all), they cannot predict or plan their next week, let alone future months or years. In Iraq, families displaced by the Islamic State group rely on monthly food assistance, with the World Food Programme (WFP) providing substantial funding through many implementing partners. In April 2015, a delay in its funding pipeline resulted in a missed month for all WFP-funded food assistance across Iraq. Around 1.5 million individuals did not receive food that they were counting on, with little or no advance notice. As increasingly desperate families heard about non-WFP actors providing food assistance in other areas, this funding delay triggered secondary displacement, with families relocating in search of assistance to meet their basic needs. Irregular provision like this—especially delays or changes in regular distribution schedules and alterations of the amount or type of food provided—has direct negative consequences for conflict-affected people. In this case, relocations forced many internally displaced persons (IDPs) to leave behind previous assistance (such as winterized shelters or large items like refrigerators) and likely strained resources and exacerbated host community–IDP tensions at their new locations.

To go beyond simply avoiding negative effects and instead strengthen the existing social networks of support, interventions must proactively integrate both IDP and host communities. For example, one of MCC’s partners, Zahko Small Villages Project (ZSVP), has engaged host communities and IDPs by incorporating ongoing livelihoods projects for vulnerable host community members—kitchen gardens, beekeeping and other home-based income generation activities—with monthly food assistance for IDPs living in the same and nearby towns. Collaboration between the two groups has happened spontaneously, and ZSVP encourages equal treatment and interaction (rather than segregation according to status) by drawing on IDPs and host community members alike for involvement in project volunteering, project participant selection and information-gathering. Hosts in these and other towns frequently provide crucial supplemental assistance through their individual generosity—providing their new neighbors with vegetables from their gardens, shared refrigerator space, cash and other necessities—that goes unrecognized and undocumented. With only ten percent of Iraqi IDPs living in camps, host communities across the country have absorbed displaced families—usually an additional 30-50% of their original population—and may themselves be in need of assistance. Outside interventions should seek to mitigate the strain on small host communities like these without undermining their contributions.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution for good interventions. However, some practical tools can be applied in many contexts, especially regarding food assistance. Beyond improving immediate food consumption without doing harm, food assistance has the capacity to decrease conflict and promote peace by prioritizing long-term and regular distributions while incorporating social cohesion into project implementation.

Kaitlin Heatwole is a program coordinator for MCC.

Learn more:

Anderson, Mary. Do No Harm: How Aid Can Support Peace—Or War. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1999.

Do No Harm Project. “The ‘Do No Harm’ Framework for Analyzing the Impact of Assistance on Conflict: A Handbook.” Cambridge, MA: Collaborative for Development Action, Inc., April 2004. Retrieved from

“Iraq: Multi-Cluster Needs Assessment of Internally Displaced Persons Outside Camps.” Geneva: REACH Initiative, October 2015. Retrieved from

“Key Principles in Do No Harm and Conflict Sensitivity.” Cambridge, MA: CDA Collaborative Learning Projects, 2015. Retrieved from

Social protection and seasonality in Ethiopia and Zimbabwe

In this article I compare the impacts of predictable seasonally-targeted safety nets in Ethiopia with annual unpredictable emergency food assistance interventions in Zimbabwe, based on cases studies of MCC supported projects. I argue that when designing food assistance projects, more predictable assistance during the hunger period provides greater opportunity to build long-term food security through the protection of household assets and labour and the promotion of greater risk-taking to enhance agricultural production. I conclude with a focus on practical measures to enhance safety net interventions.

MCC’s experience in Ethiopia provides evidence that the predictability of
seasonal safety nets enhances food security and reduces the risk of acute
crisis. Seasonally-targeted and predictable social protection interventions
aimed at addressing chronic and seasonal food shortages in the form of cash-for-work and food-for-work have been successful in boosting agricultural productivity and in scaling up conservation agriculture in severely degraded watersheds of Ethiopia. Implementation of physical and biological soil conservation activities in farms in Amhara has reduced soil erosion, thereby improving soil fertility and expanding the productive land available for farming. Crop yields have steadily increased and targete communities have restarted growing nutritious, palatable and higher-value crops such as barley, wheat, teff, field pea and haricot bean. In some of the graduated watersheds, the number of months of adequate household food provisioning has improved from six to ten.

Growing a greater variety of crops also helps decrease vulnerability to climate change by diffusing risk. Over 7000 small-scale farmers in Ethiopia’s Amhara and Sidama zones can now apply conservation agriculture (CA) techniques on their rehabilitated land, something they could not do before because of the level of erosion and land degradation. Most of the farmers in these two zones who have taken the lead in introducing CA techniques to the region have praised the seasonally targeted safety net project as the reason why they were able to adopt new farming technologies that otherwise they would have considered too risky. Most of the farmers are using the income generated from the cash-for-work resources to buy fertilizers and improved seeds. Increased fodder availability thanks to biological and soil conservation techniques is also leading to better livestock production outcomes.

These seasonally-targeted and predictable transfers in the form of cash and food have resulted in more consistent consumption at the household level. Project participants are eating more food, of different types, of better quality and more often. At the beginning of the project, 80% of the project participants were eating fewer than two meals per day and to date the same participants are consuming at least three meals per day thanks
to the seasonally-targeted and predictable transfers of food and cash. The number of food groups consumed has also increased from three to seven out of a possible twelve groups measured by the Household Diet Diversity Score index. The project is designed to ensure consumption smoothing (i.e. more predictable, stable consumption patterns) through the use of cash-for-work during the first three months of the annual hunger period (the months when food is available and accessible through the market) and food-for-work during the last three months of the hunger period (when markets have more limited food options available).

Seasonal cash- and food-for-work projects are also protecting people’s
productive and labour assets in Amhara and Sidama zones. Significant numbers of project participants are now able to avoid selling their limited harvests to pay for short-term household needs such as medicine or school fees and have also been able to avoid selling productive assets like livestock and household utensils for food. They have avoided high interest loans for food and have not had to migrate to find work during the annual hunger months (distress migration), thereby allowing more investment in
their own household livelihood activities. In addition, they also avoid low paying, exploitative and insecure casual labour as well as avoid harvesting their crops prematurely to address pressing food shortages. Cash payments from cash-for-work projects are also used for a range of productive investments, including education, livestock and savings schemes. Moreover, the predictable transfers play a key role in allowing people to feel secure enough in their income to take out productive loans which they previously found too risky.

By way of contrast, in one MCC project I examined in Zimbabwe short term and unpredictable emergency safety net interventions in the form of food-for-work meet the immediate food needs of households during peak hunger periods and create community assets such as earth dams and weirs. However, the unpredictability and late delivery of these food transfers create a tension in chronically food insecure households between meeting urgent food consumption needs and liquidating those limited food reserves in order to meet other needs for agricultural investment and education.

Year after year, rationing consumption and irreversible coping mechanisms (such as the sale of capital assets) had been reported before the emergency food-for-work projects started. Repeated exposure to seasonal stress is leading to the use of erosive coping mechanisms which in turn undermine a household’s ability to cope in the long term. Communities take on potentially disastrous debts and sell productive assets, which in turn compromises future livelihood gains, all to buy food for immediate needs. This pattern severely limits families’ abilities to bounce back, thus leading to a poverty trap. Uncertainty in the delivery of emergency assistance discourages households from making risky investments and taking out productive loans because their consumption smoothing and asset protection are not guaranteed. Not surprisingly, distress migration is common, with the majority of the able-bodied youths in the community opting to cross the border to South Africa in search of work.

While seasonally-targeted and predictable social protection interventions in the form of cash-for-work or food-for-work schemes are the best options for addressing chronic and seasonal food shortages, specific conditions should be in place for the predictable seasonal safety nets to be more effective. These conditions include:

  • Where cash-for-work is used, the size of the payments should be realistic and reviewed against inflation and the local cost of a diverse monthly food basket for the household. In Ethiopia, the size of the benefits paid is regulated by the government and in most cases the participants perceived the payments as too small to meet the food gaps.
  • Payments should be made on time. When payments are made late, households are likely to revert to harmful coping mechanisms which defeat the whole idea of a predictable safety net. Timeliness and predictability of payments from cash-for-work projects are key.
  • Participants in cash-for-work or food-for-work projects should be informed upfront of the payment amounts or of the food ration sizes. Participants should also be alerted to the duration of the project and when they will no longer be eligible to participate in the project (the project’s “graduation threshold”). When households are aware that they will receive seasonally-targeted cash or food transfers for a number of years, they are encouraged to take risks on their farms and adopt new technologies without fear of being food insecure.
  • Projects should establish clear guidelines about who is targeted for participation and what the project’s graduation thresholds will be. Such guidelines are essential for effective household selection and monitoring.
  • Very poor, labour-challenged households should be accommodated. Those who cannot contribute labour such as the sick, elderly and children should not be left out. Arrangements should be made for them to receive unconditional cash or food transfers each month.
  • Public works components of cash- or food-for-work projects should be conducted during the agriculture slack period so that these initiatives do not compete for agricultural labour aimed at household food production.
  • Community assets created though public works schemes need to be maintained on a regular basis. For this to happen, community based structures to support sustainability are vital. So, for example, in Boricha, Ethiopia, social fencing, the community shaming of those who encroach on rehabilitated land, has proven to be useful in protecting community assets.
  • Participants need continued access to the seasonal safety nets until livelihood-enhancing activities have created a sustainable livelihood.

While the food assistance schemes in Ethiopia and Zimbabwe examined above both provide immediate access to food for vulnerable households, the predictable and timely seasonal safety nets in Ethiopia are more effective in promoting long-term food security and reducing risk. Seasonal safety net projects should accordingly ensure that cash and food transfers happen in a predictable and seasonally timely manner.

Vurayayi Pugeni is an MCC humanitarian assistance coordinator, based in
Winnipeg, MB.

Learn more:

Ellis, Frank, Stephen Devereux and Philip White. Social Protection in Africa. Cheltenham, UK and Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar, 2009.

Devereux, Stephen. “Seasonality and Social Protection in Africa.” Future Agricultures Consortium Working Paper 011. Brighton, UK: University of Sussex, 2009. Available at

Intra-household vulnerability in eastern Congo

The household is the standard social unit used in planning humanitarian interventions, including cash transfers and the distribution of food and non-food items. Humanitarian assistance is often distributed to households based on the assumption that household members have uniform needs and preferences. However, households cannot simply be
characterized as places where individuals share the same priorities or even necessarily pool their resources. Households are more commonly places where competing claims, unequal power, diverse interests and access to resources are frequently negotiated and shaped by differences in age, gender and position within the household, among other factors. In this article we explore the concept of intra-household vulnerability in eastern Congo by exploring gender dynamics at play within the context of food assistance programming along with power dynamics between internally displaced persons (IDPs) and host families.

MCC has been working with partners in the eastern provinces of North and South Kivu in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) since 2008 to implement humanitarian programming in response to internal displacement. During pre-planning for food assistance projects, MCC’s program partner, the Ministry of the Church of Christ in Congo for Refugees and Emergencies (MERU)-North Kivu, conducts thorough assessments of target communities, including displaced families and their host communities. MERU’s analysis has brought to light the differing gender roles within households, particularly surrounding control over resources and the division of household labour, with women largely in charge of food storage and preparation as well as agricultural work.

Observation and monitoring by MERU staff showed that households where women were primarily responsible for managing food stocks were more often able to make food last longer and refrained from selling assets for the purchase of items considered to be non-essential. Households with male-controlled food stocks were more likely to sell food to buy items that they considered personally important, but were non-essential for the household. In response to this finding, MERU staff sought to raise awareness of social spending within the community and to encourage male participation in agricultural work as a way to share the burden and increase crop productivity. This critical understanding of intra-household dynamics allowed MERU staff to explain how placing women in key decision-making roles would be beneficial for the well-being of the entire family.

MERU staff worked with the community to define responsibilities for both
men and women in the implementation of the food assistance project. Men accepted responsibility for specific work in agricultural production, namely, clearing and preparing the soil for planting and ongoing field maintenance, including applying insecticide, transporting fertilizer and pruning. Knowing that these agricultural activities were taken care of, women were able to turn their energy to other activities, including planting, weeding and harvesting. Because of MERU’s ability to work closely with participants, understand the differing needs of different groups and make project adjustments accordingly, MERU successfully implemented its food assistance project and received strong affirmation from the communities participating in the project.

MERU’s food assistance programming also seeks to account for intra-household vulnerability due to the high number of IDPs in eastern Congo who do not take refuge in official IDP camps but rather live with host families. In combined host-IDP households, it becomes more difficult to assess the food security of IDPs, as the use of household targeting may prevent a clear understanding of additional vulnerability experienced by IDPs. Not only should more widely understood household dynamics related to gender or age differences be accounted for when designing food
assistance programing: the additional power dynamics within mixed host- IDP households must also be considered.

MERU has found that in the case of the host-IDP household, food assistance programs should determine and account for who has control over the household’s food resources and what that means for daily consumption among household members. Additionally, host families are more likely to have control over resources such as a plot of land for cultivation. In cases of combined host-IDP households, what is the impact of the IDP family on these resources? In some cases documented by MERU, host-IDP households harvested before crops matured, intensifying food insecurity. Seed stock was consumed in the immediate term, leaving families without adequate seeds for planting.

MERU’s analysis conducted at the end of each six month project phase
showed that while the average number of meals eaten per day increased
significantly for all participants over the course of the project, host family
food consumption saw a greater level of improvement than that of IDP families. Based on the intra-household dynamics observed by MERU staff, sensitization of the particular vulnerabilities of IDP families was prioritized and resulted over time in narrowing the gap of food consumption between IDPs and host families. By the fourth phase of the project, the average number of meals eaten per day was identical for both host and IDP families. A critical learning from the project is the need to assess the specific vulnerabilities experienced by the host-IDP households in order to reduce the burden on IDP and host families in negotiating how to share food, agricultural inputs and labour responsibilities.

Abandoning the household unit as a means of grouping and interacting with project participants is not likely to happen anytime soon. Thus, we at MCC must equip ourselves and our partners with tools and critical lenses through which to pay attention and respond to the complex dynamics within and between households.

Vanessa Hershberger is MCC program coordinator for the eastern provinces of the DRC, based in Bukavu, South Kivu. Annie Loewen is a humanitarian assistance coordinator for MCC, based in Winnipeg, MB.

Learn more:

Bolt, Vincent J. and Kate Bird. “The Intra-Household Disadvantages Framework: A Framework for the Analysis of Intra-Household Difference and Inequality.” Chronic Poverty Research Centre Working Paper no. 32 (2003).

Chant, Sylvia. “Dangerous Equations? How Female headed Households Became the Poorest of the Poor: Causes, Consequences and Cautions.” IDS Bulletin 35/4 (2004): 19-26.

Food vouchers and diet diversity among refugees from Syria

The ongoing armed conflict in Syria has contributed to what many observers describe as the worst humanitarian crisis since the Second World War. The statistics related to those displaced from their homes are staggering and grow on a daily basis as families abandon their communities and livelihoods in search of safety.

More than 1.2 million refugees from Syria have sought safe haven in Lebanon. The recently arrived refugees face a myriad of challenges, including steep housing prices, limited employment opportunities and dwindling humanitarian assistance from international agencies such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the World Food Programme (WFP) and, for Palestinians from Syria, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). This article explores the impact of an MCC-funded food voucher project on household diet diversity among refugees from Syria.

As resources held by displaced Syrian families become scarce, many IDPs
face the difficult decision of deciding between spending their limited funds on food or on shelter. While households experiencing food insecurity typically employ a number of strategies to save money on food, a commonly-employed tactic used by refugee families is reducing the diversity of their diet by increasingly relying on low-cost, carbohydrate-heavy foods such as rice, oil and sugar. While cheaper and more filling in the short term, the long-term consequences of a poorly balanced diet can quickly result in poor health outcomes such as stunted growth, diabetes or cardiovascular issues. In the fall of 2013, MCC, with funding from MCC’s account at the Canadian Foodgrains Bank, launched a food voucher program to address the food insecurity faced by the newly arrived refugees. In particular, the voucher program sought to increase diet diversity and the nutritional value of food consumed by refugee families.

Cross-sectional surveys were conducted of refugee households at six month intervals to evaluate the food consumed by household members. The survey asked respondents to report which of 12 pre-defined food groups had been consumed by anyone in the household in the previous 24 hours to calculate a Household Diet Diversity Score (HDDS). The food groups included:
• Cereals—bread, pasta, rice, couscous, bourghul
• White tubers or roots
• Vegetables—dark leafy greens, spinach, cilantro, onions, tomatoes, etc.
• Fruit—apples, oranges, bananas, strawberries, mangoes
• Meat—beef, chicken, lamb, liver
• Eggs
• Fish—canned fish (tuna), fresh fish, dried fish
• Legumes—beans, hummus, chickpeas, fuul, lentils, nuts
• Milk—full portion of milk, cheese, lebneh, yogurt, processed cheese
• Oil, fat, or butter
• Sweets and sugar
• Coffee, tea and spices

The surveys found that the food vouchers contributed to refugee households consuming a more diverse diet. Surveys from July 2013, administered before households began receiving food vouchers, indicated that the average HDDS was seven. In June 2014, after families had received food vouchers for nearly 11 months, the average HDDS had risen to 7.7, a significant increase, indicating that refugee households were eating a more diverse diet as a result of receiving the food vouchers. More tellingly, the median HDDS rose from seven in July 2013 to eight in February 2015, indicating that more than half of households receiving food vouchers consumed at least eight food groups in the 24 hours prior to being surveyed. The impact of the vouchers was greatest on the families who initially reported the worst dietary diversity. By February 2015, the minimum HDDS doubled from two to four, suggesting that the food voucher program allowed the most vulnerable families to access and consume a more diverse diet.

Households were also classified as having low dietary diversity (three or fewer food groups consumed), medium dietary diversity (four to five food groups consumed) or high dietary diversity (more than six food groups consumed). By February 2015, 86% of households were classified as having a highly diverse diet.

Families who received the vouchers reported in focus groups the impact that the vouchers had on the household diet. One mother reported that prior to receiving the voucher, “We usually ate one small meal of grains a day, if we ate at all. My daughter was malnourished because we couldn’t eat a diverse diet, and she became anemic.” After receiving the vouchers, however, the family was able to purchase enough food to eat three meals a day. The mother reported, “Our children are able to get the nutrition they need.”

This voucher program has aided some of the most vulnerable refugees who have few other options, allowing them to follow a healthier diet and freeing up their other limited income to use on other pressing expenses such as rent. Food vouchers can play a critical role in helping newly arrived families access the food necessary to maintain a healthy diet. Vouchers afford heads of households the dignity of choice when shopping and, just as importantly, empower them to protect the health and promote the well-being of family members through a diverse diet.

Rashid El Mansi is the program coordinator for Popular Aid for Relief and Development. Maggie Goble is a former MCC worker now in Kansas City, KS. Zenobia Taylor-Weiss works for MCC.

Learn more:

UNHCR Syria Regional Refugee Response. Inter-agency information sharing portal. Available at

Fisk, Robert. Pity the Nation: The Abduction of Lebanon. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Opportunities and dilemmas in the use of MCC’s canned meat

For almost 70 years MCC has operated a mobile meat cannery in the U.S. and Canada, shipping chicken, pork, beef and turkey canned by Mennonite, Amish, Brethren in Christ and other communities to countries around the world. In this article I describe the MCC canned meat program and also summarize recent evaluations which identify best practices for how most appropriately to program this unique resource. I specifically examine the role of the canned meat program in fostering relationships with MCC’s supporting constituency, the contribution of animal sourced protein in improving nutrition among vulnerable groups and recommendations for integrating canned meat into various food security and livelihood projects.

Each year from October to May the MCC mobile cannery travels to rural communities in thirteen U.S. states and two Canadian provinces, making over thirty stops along the way. At each of these locations, the canner is met by a group of organized volunteers who donate money, meat, facilities and time to the canning process, motivated by the desire to provide “relief in the name of Christ.” An estimated 30,000 volunteers participate in meat canning each canning season. Meat canning is a tangible service through which these communities help others facing need across the globe.

In 2007 MCC commissioned an external evaluation of MCC’s material resources program (the donation of in-kind kits, blankets and canned meat). The review solicited feedback from MCC’s constituency, program partners and project participants. The review team found that when constituents are involved in donating time to sew, purchase, pack and load items, they are also involved in other ways with MCC, including cash contributions to MCC’s program. Meat canning is beneficial, the reviewers argued, because it is a very visible and community-building way of involving rural Mennonite communities in the activities of MCC. Because canning committees donate space and meat, contribute money to underwrite canning costs and mobilize volunteer efforts, MCC incurs minimal expenses from the operations of the canned meat program.

MCC undertook a review specifically focused on the canned meat program in 2014, exploring appropriate opportunities for MCC’s programming of this unique resource. This review included a survey of MCC staff and partners as well as a literature review of the role of canned meat in food assistance and nutrition programming.

The review report notes that the most significant endemic micronutrient deficiency diseases present worldwide involve iron, vitamin A, zinc and iodine deficiencies. These deficiencies create a greater risk of mortality, especially among children under five and pregnant women, who run a higher risk of developing complications around childbirth. These micronutrient deficiencies also cause an increase in the severity of infections, stunted growth, cognitive impairments and disabilities such as blindness.

Animal-based protein contains many of the micronutrients that are needed to address deficiencies in iron, vitamin A, zinc and more. Approximately 47% of preschool children globally suffer from anemia related to iron deficiency. Animal-sourced foods provide essential macro- and micronutrients as well as fatty acids required for growth and development during childhood. Meat and dairy products contain micronutrients including iron, zinc, calcium and vitamins A and B12. Access to animal-sourced food improves growth, the level of physical activity and cognitive performance in undernourished children.

In emergency situations and during regular seasons of increased food insecurity, adequate sources of iron are often not accessible. Use of enriched cereals, pulses and iron-rich vegetables for treatment of iron deficiency often do not provide adequate sources of iron due to poor absorption rates and require complementary vitamin C content to facilitate the breakdown of nutrients. Animal-sourced foods such as meat and fish, on the other hand, contain high levels of iron that is more easily absorbed and provide a more concentrated source of iron.

While the nutritional benefits from meat are clearly of high value, obstacles remain for programming MCC’s canned meat. The canned meat review of 2014 notes the following challenges facing MCC’s canned meat program:

  • The cost and time that it takes to ship, especially to land-locked countries;
  • A lack of halal certification for MCC canned meat, which prevents programming within many Muslim communities;
  • The cultural appropriateness of the meat, which may be uncommon in some diets;
  • The strict and growing health, safety and customs regulations that prevent the shipment of meat or lead to delays in customs clearance and project implementation.

Religious and cultural questions regarding MCC canned meat coupled with logistical hurdles create reluctance on the part of some country programs to pursue the programming of canned meat.

Overall, MCC’s 2014 canned meat review recommends that providing canned meat in an ongoing institutional setting (school feeding, supplementary feeding programs, soup kitchens) is the best way to use this resource. In addition, the review also recommends using meat as a complement to food baskets with locally-purchased products provided in
emergency and seasonal food assistance projects. Building on this review, a three country evaluation of MCC’s drought response across Central America in 2014 recommended MCC canned meat be complemented with other forms of protein.

The production of canned meat has been and continues to be an important connection for many MCC constituents. While programming challenges exist, the connection to MCC constituents and the nutritional value continue to make canned meat a relevant part of MCC’s efforts to address hunger and malnutrition.

Darrin Yoder is material resources manager for MCC, based in Akron, PA.

Learn more:

Fieguth, Anita, Terrence L. Jantzi, Nancy Sider, Ronald E. Yoder, Shirley B. Yoder and Elaine Zook Barge. “Material Resources Program Review.” Akron, PA: Mennonite Central Committee, 2007.

Good, Beth, Annie Loewen, Amela Puljek-Shank and Darrin Yoder. “MCC Canned Meat Program Review.” Mennonite Central Committee. 2014.

Dror, Daphna K. and Lindsay H. Allen. “The Importance of Milk and Other Animal-Source Foods for Children in Low-Income Countries.” Food & Nutrition Bulletin. 32/3 (September 2011): 227-243.