Twenty Years of

Emergency Response Programming

in Guatemala

The Evolution of our Humanitarian Assistance Work
in the Western Highlands

A drone flies silently overhead, tactically plotting the neighborhoods below to develop a comprehensive community map. Staff members expertly navigate for miles to develop digital mapping tools that make lifesaving information available to community planners, government stakeholders and residents to assist with decision-making. These exercises are just one example of how Global Communities has sought to understand the needs of communities in the western highlands of Guatemala over the last two decades—to help them build resilience, improve disaster preparation and assist in the delivery of critically needed aid. 

As the most populous country in Central America, Guatemala faces a combination of situational and environmental challenges including food insecurity, child malnutrition, low literacy rates, cyclical climatic shocks, natural disasters and health crises. In Guatemala’s Western Highlands, over 75% of the population lives in poverty and over two-thirds of children are chronically malnourished.

According to the World Food Programme, approximately 2.4 million Guatemalans are experiencing severe food insecurity and lack reliable access to enough nutritious food to meet their dietary needs. This issue is exacerbated by factors such as poverty, climate change and previously the COVID-19 pandemic, which have disrupted agricultural production and access to food markets. 

Cultivating a culture of innovation, Global Communities has built partnerships and trust with United States funding agencies that have offered opportunities to pursue creative approaches and remain responsive in the face of constantly changing contexts.  

In the early 2000’s, the organization’s humanitarian assistance programs primarily operated in response to major events—earthquakes, hurricanes, and other natural disasters—and the direct consequences of those events such as food insecurity and water and sanitation challenges. In 2005, for example, Hurricane Stan unleashed damaging torrential rain in Central America that devastated many villages across the Western and Southern Highlands. According to reports, the powerful storm claimed more than 650 lives and impacted over 500,000 Guatemalans.  

With a grant from USAID’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA), Global Communities responded to the emergency with a primary focus on providing clean water, sanitation and education for disease prevention in 37 communities affected by the hurricane.  

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In early emergency nutrition programming, families were given food vouchers to buy items at local stores, but in recent years, the organization has leaned more heavily on multi-purpose cash transfers. Both mechanisms support better nutrition, but cash transfers are more cost-effective, flexible, and allow families greater personal ownership over the needs of their households. 

Later, Global Communities’ flagship savings groups initiative, Women Empowered (WE), was incorporated to build community resilience and promote the economic and social empowerment of women by encouraging them to form self-managed and self-sustaining savings and lending groups. WE groups merge novel approaches to transform harmful gender norms, encourage economic participation, advance financial inclusion, and in the context of humanitarian response programs, offer women an opportunity to generate sustainable incomes for their families. 

As needs have grown from immediate to long-term, and effective execution of emergency response efforts established trust with USAID, Global Communities began to look beyond the next disaster to a future that could be made resilient by the Guatemalan people and their desire for sustainable, long-lasting solutions that will protect their homes, secure their livelihoods and advance opportunity for generations to come. 

Barrio Mio: Reducing Exposure to Disasters in Guatemala 

Barrio Mio, which means “My Neighborhood,” was developed in 2012 alongside USAID/OFDA as an urban disaster risk reduction (DRR) model using innovative, scalable methodologies for upgrading high-risk informal urban settlements into safer, healthier and more resilient neighborhoods. Based on the organization’s signature Neighborhood Approach, which was used to respond to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, the Barrio Mio project in Guatemala focused on reducing vulnerability to crises before they happen. 

Municipality, a densely populated urban area located on a hillside at risk of landslides, flooding and earthquakes. In this phase, the project upgraded communities’ water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) systems, developed rainwater drainage infrastructure, improved stairways and emergency evacuation routes, engineered retaining walls, and reinforced housing structures through a cost-effective process that featured the active participation of the beneficiary communities and the collaboration of public, private and academic actors. 

Barrio Mio conducted extensive community mapping exercises in 52 neighborhoods to ensure support would reach the people who needed it most.

This was the purpose of carrying out community mapping processes —  to know the characteristics of the community and to be able to propose more comprehensive solutions. The maps generated have changed the perception of families on issues of crop planting, the need to protect water sources, and the need to implement actions to protect homes. It was also important to include the women's perspective to know what risks they identified at the community level. We learned that they are very different from the risks and needs that men identify.” 
Gesler Castillo, Emergency Programs Manager for Global Communities

The project was so successful that it continued to expand across seven municipalities over a decade, gaining the support of local ministries, municipalities, private sector partners, universities and the very communities in which they were operating. The methodology has been adopted by the Government of Guatemala as the national policy for emergency response and urban upgrading. 

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Paisano: Building Leaders through Food Security

Global Communities began implementation of the USAID-funded PAISANO project in 2012 alongside Save the Children in 13 priority municipalities in Guatemala’s Western Highlands with the goal of reducing food and nutrition insecurity for rural families.

To achieve the goal, PAISANO used a cross-cutting approach to increase household access to food, reduce malnutrition among girls and boys under age five, and improve community resilience. The first step to breaking down barriers in the rural targeted regions was to mobilize local community members into committees called COSANs (now called COCOSANs) and in this case, 70% of those selected were women because of the impact they have on the nutritional status of families. COSANs were trained to play a critical role in the success of the program as implementers, food distributors and coordinators—with an eye towards sustainability so that the results of this program could be realized long after the end of its lifetime.

WE groups were also formed to ensure that women were included in resilience building efforts, and many of the participants also occupied positions as COSANs.

PAISANO implemented emergency response efforts like direct food rations so families suffering from acute malnutrition were able to survive with an eye towards the future. Community leaders received training in agricultural production and marketing practices such as poultry production and milk-goat management, natural resource management and irrigation so they could act as Farmer Leaders. As training was rolled out to participants through Farmer Leaders, this community-driven project began to improve agricultural outputs and connect families with local, nutritious foods.

It was encouraging to see some of the advances in PAISANO communities around the organization of producers and linkages to local markets for selling of produce, which are exactly the type of livelihood supports that can offer long-term benefits to the communities well beyond the life of the program.
Michael Heller, USAID Agreement Office Representative, 2018

Because climate-driven shocks are an ever-present concern in this region, disaster risk reduction committees were established, community-mapping was completed with local stakeholders and better protocols were established to respond when crises hit.

The program increased local food access and availability in 76 communities by assisting farmers to diversify and increase their agricultural and livestock production, increasing women's business and leadership opportunities and improving access to local markets. Nearly 5,000 families benefited from increased access to nutritious vegetables and protein through vegetable gardens, livestock production and improved farming methods. 

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ACCION: Taking Action to Address Malnutrition

In 2016, Global Communities launched a two-year USAID-funded emergency food distribution project called Access to Training, Food and Interventions to Better Nutrition (ACTION) or “ACCION” in Spanish, to support 2,777 vulnerable families facing food insecurity in the municipalities of San Pedro Necta, San Ildefonso Ixtahuacán, and Nentón in Huehuetenango, Guatemala. The program responded in communities that had been most affected by several years of failed rains, which impacted the incomes of smallholder farmers.

ACCION used an innovative e-voucher system that allows vulnerable households to purchase local foods directly from local stores, giving them some choice in selecting the foods they prefer. The use of vouchers allowed community members to support and strengthen the local market while meeting their own nutritional and hygiene needs, and the electronic voucher system made it possible to effectively and efficiently track and monitor the distribution of products. 

Beyond immediate support, ACCION worked to improve the adoption of essential nutrition and hygiene practices, including training on infant and young child feeding, dietary diversity and the impact of malnutrition. The program made key connections with health district staff to identify and refer malnourished children to health services and created health and nutrition committees to support growth monitoring.

When Global Communities began training local women in the community on health and hygiene practices to help prevent malnutrition, Ezequiel Vasquez, a local father, asked to join the “Mothers in Action,” a group formed through the program. Vásquez didn’t meet the most obvious membership requirement, but he helped staff and the mothers see the role he could play as a “Father in Action.”

I want to participate in the trainings and be able to help my wife with our son and to help the other women in the project."
Ezequiel Vásquez, ACCION participant

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RETOMAR: Responding to Back-to-Back Disasters

In response to needs that arose in the department of Huehuetenango following back-to-back hurricanes in 2020, Global Communities implemented the Responding to the Storm for Increased Resilience (RETOMAR) emergency project in the Western Highlands of Guatemala. With support from USAID/BHA, RETOMAR sought to meet the urgent needs of 3,060 affected families in 61 communities of five municipalities. 

The intervention included the formation of volunteer networks, facilitated better living conditions through the rehabilitation of houses, improved access to drinking water and non-food items, sanitation and hygiene, and granting multi-purpose unconditional cash assistance.

Additionally, in response to the need for each municipality to have a municipal atlas, Global Communities worked in coordination with the municipalities to generate maps of basins and rivers that contribute to making better decisions to reduce the risk of disasters. 

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Paradelante: A Triple Threat - Drought, COVID-19 and Hurricanes

Paradelante was a two-year humanitarian food assistance project funded by USAID/BHA over a one-year period to support households in situations of high vulnerability and food insecurity in the department of Huehuetenango due to the triple crisis of consecutive droughts, income restrictions related to COVID-19, and the damage caused by Hurricanes Eta and Iota in November 2020.

The back-to-back storms caused significant damage to water and sanitation systems, so the project repaired high-impact water points to ensure that neighborhoods had clean, safe water for consumption.

The primary goal of Paradelante was to support families recovering from these crises by improving food security, health services and opportunities to strengthen their livelihoods.

As is the case when disaster strikes, the urgent needs of households were addressed first, with the distribution of multi-purpose cash assistance to support acute nutrition needs and the recovery of livelihoods.

Taking learnings from previous emergency response programs, the project helped provide families with greater freedom to invest in their own futures through cash assistance. They pursued economic activities such as backyard animal husbandry, home gardens and oyster mushroom production, and worked with Global Communities to make sound business decisions. And the trickle effect of these businesses created through Paradelante injected life into local markets and an economy that had been devastated by COVID-19.

There has been a lot of change in the lives of the families in the community because of Global Communities."
Carolina, a Paradelante participant

Similar to previous programs of this nature, the WE methodology was implemented and proved transformational for women. They learned strategies to build savings, which increased their financial stability and provided safety nets in case of emergencies. Coupled with direct cash transfers, women created small businesses to improve their families’ lives.