Issue 49 - Article 13

Investing in communities: a cost-benefit analysis of building resilience for food security in Malawi

February 4, 2011
Courtenay Cabot-Venton and Jules Siedenburg, independent consultants, and Jessica Faleiro and Jo Khinmaung, Tearfund

Almost a billion people are food insecure, most of them in developing countries. Food insecurity is compounded by climate change, which is predicted to make natural disasters such as drought and flooding more frequent and severe, in addition to making weather more erratic generally. Communities engaged in small-scale agriculture are particularly vulnerable to these trends. Preventative investments in disaster risk reduction (DRR) and climate change adaptation and resilience can minimise damage while enhancing food security. However, persuading donors and governments to make preventative investments can be difficult.

To help address this gap, Tearfund conducted a community-based cost-benefit analysis of a DRR and food security programme in a Malawian agricultural community. The programme, funded by the UK Department for International Development (DFID) and coordinated by Tearfund’s partner, Church of Central Africa Presbyterian (CCAP), Synod of Livingstonia in Malawi, has run for four years and spans 53 remote villages in Mzimba District.

An overview of the cost-benefit study

Malawi is vulnerable to extreme weather events, including both droughts and flooding. While floods displace more people and result in greater damage to fixed assets, droughts are a greater cause of food insecurity and death.

The study found that the DRR and food security programme had a highly positive impact on target communities in terms of household incomes and assets, education, health and reduced mortality rates. Remarkably, for every $1 invested, the programme activities delivered $24 of net benefits for the targeted communities, to help them overcome food insecurity while building their resilience to drought and erratic weather. This positive financial return provides a powerful argument for investing in preventative activities in vulnerable small-scale agricultural communities. And this is a conservative estimate; the true figure could be as high as $36 (and is based only on those benefits that could be quantified).

Community-based cost-benefit analysis (CBA) is an evidence-based tool that can be used to analyse the benefits of resilience-building activities, offering an important contribution to debates on the value of integrating resilience-building into development and humanitarian programmes. However, the quantitative benefits of initiatives should be considered alongside their qualitative benefits, to ensure a holistic assessment. CBA also needs to be done in a transparent and accessible manner.

The empirical evidence gathered by the fieldwork showed that drought has had serious impacts in the study area. According to the affected communities, the main direct impacts of drought in the past were widespread crop failure, reduced access to water and adverse impacts on livestock production such as emaciation, illness and death. The picture that emerged from the testimony of affected communities was that drought created a “vicious circle” of food insecurity, asset depletion, environmental degradation and vulnerability to climate shocks.

In sharp contrast, the DRR and food security programme delivered profound benefits to targeted communities, contributing to a “virtuous circle” of food security, asset-building, environmental restoration and climate resilience.

The cost-benefit analysis was based on quantitative estimates of the following programme benefits:

  • increased crop production;
  • increased livestock production (goats);
  • avoided loss of education (from drop-out/hunger/lack of school fees); and
  • avoided loss of life (from malnutrition or hunger-related mortality).

The CBA was conducted in conjunction with a review of the government of Malawi’s policy and practice in the realm of food security and risk management, to understand the broader context in which communities’ own efforts sit. The government of Malawi seems to have made good progress by increasing investment in agriculture. However, there is insufficient money for effective disaster risk management or to scale up interventions. There are also questions around the effectiveness, governance and transparency of the Agricultural Input Subsidy Programme, and it was reported that other aspects of agriculture, such as extension services, lack support. While this study demonstrates that an effective and well-targeted local programme can deliver profound benefits for a specific community, further progress towards achieving greater food security requires strong policy frameworks at a national level, coordinated across government ministries, coupled with decentralisation of budgets and decision-making to district and local levels and effective partnerships between the government and civil society.

Benefits of the DRR programme: the “with” scenario

The evidence gathered by the fieldwork shows that the CCAP DRR programme has delivered huge benefits to the farming community. The evidence for the scenario with the DRR programme only covers normal rainfall years and erratic rainfall years since the district has not experienced a severe drought since the programme began. Yet it is notable that, despite people’s vivid memories of the ravages of drought, they are nonetheless quietly confident about the future.

What brought about this remarkable transformation? When asked which programme activities were most important to delivering food security, given the threat of drought, the focus groups all cited the same factors: crop diversification, soil and water conservation and the provision of drought-resistant livestock. This unanimity underlines the centrality of these factors to food security in this context. It is also notable that all three activities involve farm production, revealing the importance of farm income to food security. Specifically, interventions in these areas involved the following:

Crop diversification: CCAP encouraged diversification into both different crop types and improved maize varieties via capacity-building and the provision of seed. Alternatives included nitrogen-fixing crops and perennials such as cassava, groundnuts, beans, soya and pigeon pea. Inter-planting was encouraged as a means to raise production, improve climate resilience and control pests.

Soil and water conservation: CCAP fostered sustainable agriculture via capacity-building in Soil and Water Conservation (SWC) practices, including applying manure to fields, composting, water harvesting, contour ridges, tied ridges with vetiver grass and agroforestry.

Livestock production: CCAP provided each target household with a breeding pair of goats as part of a pass-on scheme, whereby the household passes a young goat on to a neighbour when their own goat has given birth. Goats are a key asset because they are a drought-resistant species and are not susceptible to tsetse fly, yet still produce manure, milk and meat.

During the focus group discussions, it became clear that a basic aspect of the CCAP programme was its role in restoring degraded lands. This addressed key agricultural needs, notably soil and moisture. It also diversified livelihoods, provided marketable assets and built climate resilience. It was relevant because local farmlands had been degraded and hence had infertile soil with low water-holding capacity, creating poor growing conditions for crops and acute vulnerability to climate change.


Table 1 summarises the key findings from the analysis.[1]

The above calculations were supported by the following assumptions and/or observations:

  • The programme was estimated to have 4,250 direct beneficiaries. CCAP worked directly with 5,000 farmers, but it was estimated that approximately 85% of these people adopted the full range of innovations advocated, while 15% adopted only a subset.
  • The programme delivered diverse indirect benefits to the wider population, notably others in the target villages and people from neighbouring villages. Indirect benefits included copying SWC practices and experimentation with crop diversification, and being loaned goats or given improved seed varieties by neighbours.
  • The major changes observed among target households over the last five years are attributable to the DRR programme, as this was the only significant development initiative in the target zone in recent years. Plan International provided food aid to target groups (orphans, AIDS sufferers, widows, the disabled, the elderly) in the period immediately following the severe drought of 2001–02. The government also engaged in limited water provision and agricultural extension activities.
  • This assumption fitted with the statements of the farmers themselves, who strongly asserted that CCAP’s activities had had a transformative effect on their livelihoods and food security in the face of drought.

Lessons learned from the CBA process

Both programme partners and target communities found the CBA approach easy to understand. The Malawian farmers readily understood the idea of comparing ‘with’ and ‘without’ scenarios and identifying concrete, quantifiable impacts. They  were amused at the study team’s relentless emphasis on numeric impacts, since they tend to think more in qualitative terms. Yet they also found this approach compelling as they listened to examples from individual farmers about their experiences with the programme interventions. Some participating farmers were clearly surprised by the results others reported, and it seemed that the focus group discussion was a learning process which could spur further adoption of programme innovations.

Some aspects of this process worked especially well. The farmers seemed to enjoy talking about the broad themes raised by the study team, notably local hazard impacts, coping strategies and responses and changes over time. They seemed to relate well to framing food security as the goal and drought and increasingly erratic weather as key threats. They also appreciated the concept of climate change, since they had observed major climatic changes in recent years that they termed ‘crazy weather’. Villagers even had firm ideas about the causes of climate change, pointing in particular to widespread deforestation in the area over recent decades.

Other aspects of this process were more challenging. Notably, the study involved asking farmers to comment on various competing scenarios, which sometimes led to confusion. For instance, farmers had to discuss not only the ‘with’ and ‘without’ cases, but also the effects of each of these cases under different rainfall scenarios, i.e. normal rainfall, erratic rainfall, severe drought. Farmers were also asked to tease out the significance of different programme interventions.

Several caveats need to be stated regarding the applicability of community-based CBA to evaluating DRR interventions:

  • CBA could work less well where the programme in question has only started recently, since some programme activities deliver results only gradually, and hence may take time to be fully appreciated by communities. Many SWC practices fall into this category.
  • CBA works particularly well where the programme being assessed includes a range of activities, providing communities with scope to speak about their relative importance.
  • Quantitative findings must be set in their qualitative context, since many benefits and costs are difficult to quantify.

In summary, community-based CBA is an invaluable tool for evaluating DRR interventions. As seen from the results of the present study, it offers strong support for preventative investments and provides a powerful tool to advocate for future DRR interventions with donors and governments. It is equally well suited to assessing the impacts of investments in climate change adaptation. CBA can also help programme partners and donors think through their programming choices in a systematic, rigorous way.


Governments, donors, UN agencies and NGOs should:

• Integrate CBA, risk analysis and resilience-building activities into development planning and implementation to address underlying risk factors.

• Integrate DRR into central policy and programming, such as the national agricultural policy.

• Increase investment in reducing the risks of severe food insecurity and preventing food crises – i.e. at least 10% of humanitarian aid budgets.

• Promote strong linkages and coherence between climate change adaptation, DRR, poverty reduction and national sustainable development plans.

• Strengthen local adaptive capacity, ensuring that funding reaches the poorest and most vulnerable communities.

• Support effective partnership between civil society and government at local and national levels to increase the transparency and accountability of resources for intended beneficiaries.

Courtenay Cabot-Venton and Jules Siedenburg are independent consultants. Jessica Faleiro is a Policy and Research Officer on Disaster Risk Reduction at Tearfund. Jo Khinmaung is a Policy Officer on Food Security at Tearfund.

[1] For the full methodology, data, assumptions and calculations or to see how these figures were derived, please refer to the full report (

[2] See the full report for the complete version.


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