Increased food prices in Liberia: new crisis, old relief–development dilemmas
by Hanna Mattinen, Caroline Broudic and Helene Deret, ACF May 2009

Dramatic increases in basic commodity prices during 2008 provoked riots in several countries, and were considered a serious threat to people’s food security and national stability. Vulnerability to such an external shock, however, varies depending on the specific context. Factors such as dependency on imports for basic food commodities, government capacity to mitigate the impacts of rising prices, the reliance of the population on markets, political stability and overall living standards all influence the intensity of the crisis and its consequences.

To highlight the different impacts of the crisis, Action contre la Faim (ACF) conducted surveys in several countries, including Liberia and the Central African Republic (CAR). In Bangui, the CAR capital, ACF found that the impact of increases in international prices was relatively limited, and that food insecurity was linked mainly to traditional seasonal patterns of hunger and increases in fuel prices. In Liberia, on the other hand, people were significantly affected. This article focuses on the impact of the price shock on the capital, Monrovia, using the findings of ACF’s survey in Greater Monrovia carried out in May and June 2008.

Why is Liberia particularly vulnerable?

Fourteen years of civil war in Liberia between 1989 and 2003 severely affected the national economy and brought about profound changes in society, notably a massive increase in urbanisation, in particular in Monrovia. Imports are vital to the economy: about two-thirds of the country’s staple food, rice, is imported, and people are heavily reliant on imports for petrol and other basic food commodities. The country’s own rice production declined by an estimated 76% between 1987 and 2003. Meanwhile, markets and the road network are under-developed; the coastal belt, where the country’s largest cities including Monrovia are located, is poorly connected with inland areas, and most of the commercial exchanges that serve urban centres take place internationally, making prices especially sensitive to international fluctuations.

While the government took steps to mitigate the impact of price increases, including removing the tax on imported rice and imposing a price ceiling on bags of bought rice, the impact of these measures is uncertain. What is clear is that the price spikes appear to have hit the poorest hardest. Even before the current price shock the food security situation in Monrovia was fragile. An ACF nutritional survey in February 2008 showed 17.6% global acute malnutrition (GAM), above the 15% emergency cut-off point. Although the causes of malnutrition in Monrovia are complex, inadequate food intake was identified as one of its key determinants. In response to the price shock people changed their diets, eating less protein and fewer vegetables and substituting rice for nutritionally less rich cassava, and children were sent out to look for work more frequently. Admissions of severely malnourished children into ACF/ANDP nutritional centres jumped by 40% between April and May. While it is impossible to establish a clear link between increased prices and increased malnutrition, it is likely that higher prices reduced access to food for the most vulnerable, affecting their nutritional status.

Proposed responses

ACF identified a twin-track approach to respond to the situation in Monrovia. First, short-term interventions were recommended to mitigate the immediate adverse effects of the price surge on the most vulnerable. Second, longer-term measures were developed aimed at building people’s resilience and increasing their capacity to cope with potential future shocks. These steps were in line with the government’s own strategy, which was important given that the government had shown itself willing to find a solution to the crisis. Apart from measures to mitigate domestic price increases and to ensure consistent supply, such as suspending import taxes on rice and agricultural inputs, and imposing a price ceiling for rice and a short-lived ban on food exports, the government also proposed maintaining access to food for vulnerable households through food-based programmes and promoting domestic food production through support to farming. Funding of these initiatives, however, remains unclear.

The two main short-term activities proposed by ACF were the treatment and detection of acute malnutrition and the distribution of wet food rations through canteens, combined with cash for work. Canteens was considered a better option than traditional blanket feeding because this would ensure that targeted children consumed the ration, and was deemed safer, if logistically more difficult. A two-stage targeting system was proposed for short-term food and cash-based interventions, combining geographical and demographic targeting. Geographical zones (townships) were targeted according to population density, access to formal employment and quality of the existing infrastructure, and the number of children referred to ACF nutritional programmes. Households within these areas were selected according to demographic criteria: children under five and pregnant and lactating women were targeted to reduce the risk of a further degradation in the nutritional situation, aggravated by the additional health risks posed by the rainy season, which runs from June to October. This is typically a lean period: job opportunities and petty trade are more limited, and local food production is lower, pushing prices up. In addition, inadequate drainage in Monrovia means that parts of the city are flooded and pools of stagnant water develop, increasing health risks. There is a seasonal peak in malaria and cholera cases at the end of rainy season, and respiratory infections are common. Densely populated shanty towns like West Point and Clara Town are worst affected.

It is clear that the proposed approach encompasses the risk of both inclusion and exclusion errors, but this risk was deemed acceptable. Alternatives such as organisation-led household targeting would have been too time-consuming and would probably not have been feasible given the complex nature of Monrovian society and the lack of social cohesion in the city following the civil war.

The proposed mid- and long-term actions include technical and policy measures, some of which do not fit into the ‘traditional’ realm of humanitarian NGOs and call for extensive government involvement. The first aim is to improve the resilience of the urban population by diversifying their sources of food and income. The second aim is to reduce Liberia’s dependence on international markets for staple foods and to enhance the capacity of its smallholder farmers, increasing production and improving resilience to future market shocks. Actions include enhancing staple food production and upgrading roads and markets to better serve the agricultural sector, promoting farmers’ organisation to increase their bargaining power and discourage unfair international competition, and investing to improve the quality and preservation of produce. These proposed measures have far-reaching consequences and require the participation of a wide range of actors, including the government.

Despite the well-documented and worrying food security situation, ACF could not find funding to set up these projects. ‘Emergency’ donors were not interested in funding projects that aimed at preventing a crisis in the future, while ‘development’ donors were not interested in funding short-term projects. Liberia clearly falls into a funding gap: the country does not qualify as an emergency, and hence funding of short-term projects is extremely difficult, even if these projects are crucial to any longer-term development.

Conclusions and future challenges

Liberia illustrates the complex response the price crisis calls for. Boosting agricultural production, one of the key objectives in the Comprehensive Framework of Action (CFA) of the High Level Task Force on the Global Food Security Crisis, is a good example of such complexity. Profound structural issues need to be addressed before positive returns from a distribution of agricultural inputs can be expected. Liberia possesses significant unused agricultural capital, but swampland needs to be rehabilitated; road and market networks require immediate attention and storage facilities, even at the household level, are inadequate. It is also unclear whether the Liberian population has the necessary farming skills or will following such a long and devastating civil war. The government needs to scale up its investment in the agricultural sector, accompanied with policies limiting negative returns on smallholder farmers. The national budget for the agricultural sector has been doubled for the current fiscal year, but still only represents 2.4% of the total budget. Additionally, agriculture does not provide immediate returns, and it is necessary to provide for the most pressing needs of vulnerable populations.

The current price shock in Liberia needs to be set against the backdrop of political stabilisation following the end of the civil war. This has seen a shift from an emergency-oriented response towards rehabilitation and development programmes. Most aid actors have withdrawn from direct assistance, and are now involved in programmes aimed at strengthening local capacities. It is likely that agencies’ ability to identify and react to a potential humanitarian crisis has weakened. The donor landscape too has changed. Only a very limited number of donors are willing to fund short-term projects designed to prevent the degradation of people’s food security situation. In other words, the situation needs to be qualified as a crisis before funding is allocated. Yet donors interested in more long-term programming are not interested in short-term action, and call for longer-term investment. Catch-22.

The food price crisis clearly illustrates that short-term measures to meet basic needs must be accompanied with long-term measures to support livelihoods from the outset, if satisfactory and sustainable humanitarian outcomes are to be achieved. This raises challenges for humanitarian and developments actors, donors and governments, and calls for new forms and means of collaboration. In such a context, the emergency–development division seems increasingly outdated. Instead, holistic approaches that more effectively link the short term and the long are needed, to bridge the artificial gap between these two concepts. In particular, in countries that have just embarked on the fragile early recovery phase, such as Liberia, there is a need to maintain a minimum capacity for humanitarian response or establish functional safety nets to avoid any risk of regression in the humanitarian situation.

Overall, the international food crisis is yet another aggravating factor affecting the world’s 960 million food-insecure people. The ultimate impact of the crisis on the livelihoods of these people will vary according to their capacity to cope with price fluctuations and their governments’ capacity and willingness to mitigate the effects of the shock. Given the global financial crisis, it is unclear how the situation will evolve, but prices are predicted to remain high, meaning continued additional stress for vulnerable households, putting their livelihoods at further risk. In such a context, there is a crucial need for adequate surveillance systems and timely action to mitigate the impacts on the livelihoods of poor households.

Hanna Mattinen (hmattinen@actioncontrelafaim.org) is senior food assistance advisor at Action contre la Faim (ACF). Caroline Broudic (broudic.caroline@wanadoo.fr) is ACF’s food security field consultant, and Helene Deret ( hderet@actioncontrelafaim.org) is senior food security and livelihoods advisor).

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