Information is a prerequisite, not a luxury
by Jeremy Shoham, Emergency Nutrition Network and NutritionWorks April 2006

Efforts to address acute and chronic vulnerability must be underpinned by information from Food Security Information Systems (FSIS). However, despite significant investment in such systems, relatively little has been written about what does and does not work, and how FSIS can be strengthened.

A high-profile aspect of Save the Children UK (SC UK)’s work over the past 15 years has been supporting FSIS, primarily through staff secondments and the development and use of the Household Economy Approach (HEA) methodological toolkit. Working with partners such as the World Food Programme (WFP), the Food and Agriculture Organisation, FEWS-NET and national governments, SC UK has helped to integrate HEA into FSIS in Burundi, Darfur, Ethiopia, Somalia, south Sudan and Tanzania, as well as making FSIS a part of Vulnerability Assessment Committees (VACs) in Southern Africa. Although the entry point and focus for much of this work has been employing the HEA approach within an emergency context SC UK has gained wide experience of FSIS implementation beyond the emergency environment.

In light of this experience, SC UK commissioned a review in 2005 to extract key lessons for strengthening future FSIS activities, both within the agency and among other stakeholders. The review was based on internal reports by country staff from Ethiopia, East and Central Africa, Tanzania, Darfur and Southern Africa. Its main findings can be classified under four headings: factors that influence the use of FSIS data; the food aid bias of FSIS; the factors underpinning the sustainability of FSIS; and the challenges of linking FSIS with longer-term monitoring and analysis of chronic vulnerability and poverty.

Factors that influence how decision-makers use information

The two main factors that influence how information from FSIS is used by decision-makers are the credibility of the FSIS, and politics. Credibility appears to be strongest where there has been a process of multi-agency consultation over the development of the methodology used in the FSIS, as in southern Sudan and the national VACs in Southern Africa. Credibility can be further enhanced when external decision-makers perceive agencies and staff involved with the FSIS to be ‘neutral’ in the way they analyse information (seconding technical staff is one way to achieve this). A clear strategy is also needed to guide communication with decision-makers, so that they understand how the information is derived and the analysis undertaken.

For political reasons, governments may choose to ignore or suppress certain information. In such situations, the precise location of the FSIS within government may be critical. Early-warning units can easily be marginalised, whereas units with multi-ministerial representation are more likely to succeed in informing objective decision-making. Designers and implementers of FSIS need to understand the mandates, policies and politics of UN agencies, government departments and bilateral donors, and how these may affect decision-making. Only then will it be possible to tailor information management and alliance-building strategies to greatest effect.

The bias towards food aid

The FSIS supported by SC UK have rarely been used to promote or influence non-food aid responses in emergency contexts. There are a number of reasons for this, including shortcomings in available assessment tools and a lack of knowledge about how to apply available tools. There has, however, been much debate in the literature regarding the food aid bias in emergency response, and changes are happening. Humanitarian organisations are increasingly likely to implement non-food responses, with agencies such as Oxfam, CARE, Action Contre la Faim (ACF) and SC UK taking a lead. Oxfam has published guidelines on cash-transfer programming during emergencies. WFP is beginning to make non-food recommendations in its assessments, and is piloting cash programming on a small scale. Several of the largest aid donors, including the European Commission, the UK and Canada, have replaced some of their food-only shipments with cash.


The SC UK review has also highlighted the type of analysis and planning that can help underpin the financial, technical and institutional sustainability of FSIS. Where demand for FSIS is high, for instance in emergencies and in geopolitically important regions, donors are likely to give consistent financial support. However, funding appears to be less reliable for systems located in areas where emergencies are more sporadic and/or where systems are more firmly embedded in – and partially funded by – national governments. There is a lack of publicly available data on the component and aggregate costs of FSIS, making financial planning for sustainability very difficult.

National capacity to implement FSIS can easily be degraded and lost. Although SC UK has consistently invested resources into building capacity within implementing bodies, through training, mentoring and secondment for instance, this capacity has been easily eroded. The SC UK experience has shown how vital it is to conduct a capacity analysis prior to implementing or supporting an FSIS, and to anticipate the likely need to develop an in-house training capacity. Strategies to build and sustain capacity in FSIS need to be developed on a country-by-country basis. Decisions about the type of approach and the complexity of the tools used within the FSIS need to take account of long-term capacity within a country.

It is also vital to consider how to achieve maximum institutional ownership, and to maintain support and influence within the institution where the FSIS is located. There is a major gap in the literature here, which could be addressed through more systematic institutional analysis of the many FSIS currently operating within or at the margins of national governments. Arguably, bilateral donors are best placed to undertake this type of analysis, as they are more likely to intuit understanding from their own experience of government.

Integrating FSIS with longer-term chronic vulnerability and poverty monitoring and analysis

SC UK has had some experience of linking or integrating emergency-focused FSIS with information systems that monitor and analyse chronic vulnerability and poverty. In a number of countries where SC UK has had a long-term and mainly emergency-oriented presence – in south Sudan, Tanzania and much of Southern Africa – acute emergencies have subsided or conflicts have been resolved, and there are lessons to be learned from these contexts.

Many responses meet acute needs, but do little to address chronic problems. Populations continue to teeter on the edge of crisis, and emergencies recur with predictable regularity. It is therefore essential that information systems provide not only sustainable early-warning capacity, but also a more detailed understanding of livelihoods, to inform longer-term sectoral policies and programmes to reduce vulnerability and enhance welfare, including national social protection programmes. Donors and governments must therefore maintain and increase their investment in national and regional food security and livelihood information systems. There is, however, a risk that, as emergency needs and public attention decline, there will be a corresponding decline in the perceived need for quality information systems relating to food security and livelihoods. There are many examples where emergency-focused FSIS or early-warning systems have withered away as emergencies have passed and donor interest has waned.

That said, there is mounting pressure on agencies and governments which have invested in emergency FSIS to find a way of maintaining these systems (including their institutional memory), and to link them more effectively with, or develop them into, new systems that monitor the chronically vulnerable. This is an explicit objective of the UK Department for International Development (DFID)’s Regional Hunger and Vulnerability Project in Southern Africa, for example.

Many countries already track chronic vulnerability as part of the monitoring requirements of their Poverty Reduction Strategy Programmes (PRSPs). However, this has developed as a separate system, funded by a different group of (non-humanitarian) stakeholders. There are therefore major issues about the compatibility of emergency-focused FSIS and longer-term PRSP monitoring systems in terms of survey procedures, sampling, institutional location and reporting. Furthermore, given the sensitivities of some governments, it is not clear how open they will be to the idea of incorporating or linking tools like HEA into PRSP monitoring systems. Methods such as HEA, which allow for detailed analysis of the underlying causes and processes of food insecurity, malnutrition and poverty, may be viewed as highly threatening. This tension will be intrinsic to any form of FSIS which monitors chronic vulnerability (PRSP or otherwise), as an understanding of livelihoods and vulnerability also requires a focus on the macro environment and on governance. Other, relatively new information systems, such as the VACs in Southern Africa and the Livelihoods Analysis Forum in southern Sudan, integrate emergency and chronic vulnerability surveillance. These systems may provide a template for other countries, but it is early days, and there is much still to learn.

Post-emergency FSIS will also require strengthened capacity to identify appropriate medium- and longer-term non-food interventions, and to assess the impact of these interventions. Work in these areas includes ODI’s Tsunami Cash Learning Project, DFID’s support for research on social protection programmes and WFP’s work on Results Based Management. However, despite the increased attention impact assessment is attracting, there is still a dearth of published information on the impact of humanitarian interventions. There are many reasons for this, not least the methodological and ethical difficulties involved in obtaining control groups in emergency contexts, and the fact that no single agency is responsible for assessing the impact of different types of nutrition and food security intervention. Well-conceived FSIS could theoretically provide the vehicle for systematic impact assessment.

The ideal FSIS would possess integrated early-warning, chronic vulnerability/poverty monitoring and impact assessment capacity. The current pattern, whereby FSIS are separated financially and institutionally from systems that monitor chronic vulnerability and poverty, is not really working. Early-warning systems often come and go as emergencies ebb and flow, while linkages between acute and chronic vulnerability monitoring are poorly made. Intervention modalities are rarely tested, and are rolled out on the basis of agency mandate, established expertise and access to funding, rather than any empirical study of their effectiveness.

What we need is a model that addresses the methodological, institutional, political and funding challenges involved in straddling the divide between emergency needs and chronic vulnerability. One key constraint is the lack of public information on what FSIS costs. If rough costs of the component elements of an FSIS were available, it may prove easier to establish multi-stakeholder funding, and therefore longer-term sustainability. Donors (bilaterals, UN agencies and international NGOs) could kick-start this process by collating and analysing this information, and putting it into the public domain. Further efforts are also needed to provide objective, generic guidelines on the appropriate set of methodological tools for FSIS in different circumstances.

A number of concurrent processes and initiatives in the humanitarian world indicate that there has probably never been a better time to make headway. Donors are increasingly attracted by ‘safety net’ programming to address chronic vulnerability and crises of development, and organisations like the EC are planning to include food security and livelihood programming as one of several themes for new budgetary mechanisms in 2007. At the same time, humanitarian agencies are giving greater consideration to non-food aid responses, and are beginning to look more systematically at the relative impact of different types of programming. Information to inform these initiatives is not a luxury but a prerequisite – programme success must be underpinned by more joined-up thinking around FSIS.

Jeremy Shoham is the Director of the Emergency Nutrition Network, and a partner in the NutritionWorks group of independent international nutritionists (see