Issue 42 - Article 2

The implications of the food crisis for humanitarian response

May 5, 2009
David Nabarro and Marianne Muller, HLTF

Massive levels of food insecurity for hundreds of millions of people by no means constitutes a new crisis. Even before the upward spiral of food prices over the past few years, more than 800 million people were suffering from hunger and malnutrition. But the shocking price peaks of 2008 triggered wide recognition that the world needed to respond quickly and comprehensively, or else risk millions more becoming hungry. At the same time, the opportunity also emerged for the international community to demonstrate that it was capable of forming new partnerships and developing new approaches to address the deep-rooted problems of the global food system, and tackle worldwide food insecurity with joint action and common resolve.

The international response to hunger and food insecurity

In April 2008, the Chief Executives Board of the United Nations system met in Berne in Switzerland to decide how the international system could best respond and prevent a further escalation of the crisis. It agreed on rapid action to try to halt a major increase in world hunger, and at the same time strengthen its efforts to better fulfil the global commitments to food security and poverty reduction outlined in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The Board concluded that a coordinated, consolidated and coherent approach was both essential and urgent. It created a High Level Task (HLTF), chaired by the United Nations Secretary-General, and comprising the heads of the UN bodies, the Bretton Woods institutions, the World Trade Organisation and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). The HLTF developed a Comprehensive Framework for Action (CFA) to address the immediate and longer term impacts of the food crisis and contribute to global food security.

The Comprehensive Framework for Action

The CFA is an opportunity to bridge humanitarian and development agendas, drawing on the comparative advantage and knowledge of each participating organisation, their partners and all stakeholders involved in the response to the food crisis. It sets out a programme of coordinated actions and outcomes. As such, it is an example of what the United Nations is trying to achieve in terms of its own reform objectives, namely delivering as one in areas that are fundamental to all human life: food and nutrition security.

The HLTF recognised that, despite the broad range of policies and actions already under way to respond to the food price challenge, there was a need for a consensus document that presented a common understanding of the drivers of the crisis, and laid out the actions that needed to be taken, both to meet the immediate needs of vulnerable populations and to build longer-term resilience. The result is a framework through which Task Force members stand together to advocate for urgent policy adjustments and actions and mobilise the support and resources to make such changes possible.

The CFA, which was launched in July 2008, represents a synchronised approach to social protection, food systems, small-scale agriculture, markets and trade. It presents 56 urgent actions to meet two sets of outcomes. While both require simultaneous attention, the first set focuses on immediately increasing food availability and access to food and nutrition support. Actions might include emergency food assistance and safety nets (school feeding, adjusting pensions and existing social protection programmes), supporting smallholder food production through the provision of inputs, adjusting tax and trade policy and managing macro-economic implications. The second set addresses structural issues, and aims to contribute to sustainable improvements in global food and nutrition security. Actions include the expansion of social protection, promoting sustainable smallholder food production, improving international markets and developing an international consensus on biofuels. The policy response is therefore on threetracks: responding to immediate needs, paying attention to the longer-term underlying causes of vulnerability and ensuring that markets and systems of trade work for, not against, the interests of poor people. The right to food figures as a basis for analysis, action and accountability.

The CFA also presents a series of actions to strengthen and coordinate assessments, monitoring and surveillance. These are neither exhaustive nor exclusive, and are not meant to be universally applied. They are intended to guide national food, nutrition and agriculture policies and priorities, and act as a reference point for the joint, coordinated and multi-stakeholder work that is already taking place or must be initiated at the country, regional and global levels.

Actions to date

Like most crises, high food prices helped to galvanise high-level political support. In June 2008, 180 delegations gathered for a World Food Security Summit in Rome called for short-term food assistance, sustained investment in agricultural production and research and greater coordination among international actors. At their meeting in Hokkaido, Japan, in July, the G8 proposed a Global Partnership for Agriculture and Food to lend high-level political – and one would hope financial – support to country-led processes and institutions, and ensure that resources were put to work in useful ways. Similar discussions were held at the African Union Assembly in Sharm el Sheikh in Egypt at the end of June, and the food crisis was also a key theme in the UN General Assembly’s sober midpoint review of the MDGs in September. However, as is typical in crisis response, the deeper and more difficult issues, including trade barriers, biofuels and sustained financial commitments, were left unresolved.

On the ground, international agencies were able to boost their operations to help meet rising need. The World Food Programme raised more than $1.2 billion for emergency food operations in 62 countries, and the Food and Agriculture Organisation assisted small farmers in 28 countries with fertilizer. In May, the World Bank launched a New Deal for Global Food Policy, including a ten-point action plan and $1.2bn of financial support to countries affected by the food crisis. The IMF plugged balance of payments gaps for low-income countries suffering from food price shocks. The promise of coordinated action helped to generate some of the political and financial support that allowed such activities to take place.

Despite these efforts, the flow of overseas development assistance for food security and agriculture has been extremely slow. Resources to boost agricultural production with subsidised seeds, fertilizer and credit to farmers did not fully materialise for 2008’s key planting seasons. In order to protect their own food supplies, some governments felt they had to impose import and export restrictions that did not help attempts to drive prices lower.

The HLTF has initiated intensified coordination in a subset of countries experiencing both immediate and longer-term impacts from the crisis and/or where preliminary assessments have already taken place, and there is good potential for greater partnerships. By ‘intensified coordination’, the HLTF means synergised working to support national authorities, engage with a broad range of stakeholders, including private entities, civil societies, regional institutions (including development banks) and donor agencies, and encourage the prompt implementation of actions. The subset includes countries of humanitarian concern, such as Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Haiti and Liberia. Elsewhere, in Somalia and the Palestinian Territories for instance, new emergency food aid programmes have been created. Meanwhile, in September 2008 officials from the European Commission asked the UN system, the World Bank and some regional organisations to help them identify options for the rapid spending of one billion euros in response to the immediate impact of the food crisis on vulnerable populations. The Commission’s focus is on safety nets and boosting food production and marketing among smallholder farmers.

Looking ahead

The CFA is based on the assumption that the current food crisis represents an urgent structural challenge that must be addressed in a concerted, comprehensive and coordinated way. In the humanitarian context, this requires recognising that we must go beyond the immediate crisis response, with an approach rooted in a deeper understanding of the drivers and consequences of poverty and vulnerability. It also involves putting government activities at the centre and expanding partnerships to include development actors, financial institutions and the private sector. It means ensuring that the crisis response promotes longer-term developmental and economic objectives.

While global food prices have eased significantly from their record highs in the first part of 2008, this does not mean that leaders and policy-makers can back away from their commitments. Even at lower levels, prices remain too high for poor people all over the world, and hunger is expected to continue rising. Even more worrying, in the medium to longer term food prices are expected to go back up. Other challenges – the financial crisis and climate change, to name just two – will threaten global food security for generations to come. This means that there is a need to focus on options for increasing the resilience of poor people so that they are less vulnerable to debt, forced migration, malnutrition or mortality. This includes expanding social protection, one of the cornerstones of the CFA. NGOs, UN agencies, development banks and others are seeking ways to improve the coverage and efficiency of social protection for poor people within the funds that are potentially available. Better to do this than to face greatly increased demands for humanitarian assistance.

Smallholder farmers, pastoralists and fisherfolk remain the primary focus of attention as population groups particularly affected by the food crisis. These groups comprise many of the poorest people in the world, yet they have also been bypassed by recent trends in assistance for agricultural and rural development. They need to be able to produce more and to access markets for their produce. Vulnerable groups like the urban poor and the displaced will also require additional attention.

The CFA is being realised through the efforts of many stakeholders – within civil society and NGOs, the private sector, farmers and other producer organisations as well as national authorities – with short- and long-term interventions. The notion of inclusive partnerships which can serve as the basis for a broad movement is critical here: the CFA should not be implemented as a ‘programme’, and humanitarians should be encouraged to seek ways of contributing to these partnerships at community and country levels. At a global level, this will require sustained political commitment, including by all HLTF partners. At every level, all parties must put governments at the centre and ensure that actions are based on needs and are country-led.

The HLTF is committed to an approach to coordination where national authorities are in the lead. External groups will work together through existing processes (usually the system that brings together UN Resident/Humanitarian Coordinators and World Bank Country Directors), as well as other established coordination mechanisms, including the country-level IASC and the arrangements put in place within the framework of the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness, such as sectoral working groups and Joint Assistance Strategies. The collective work of the members – at country, regional and global level – will be supported by the HLTF Coordination Secretariat (consisting of around ten professionals) with elements in Rome (the principal hub), New York (with a special focus on support to the Secretary General’s office), Washington and Geneva. The Secretariat will have five key functions.

  • Monitor the situation in-country, support stronger country-led responses and track the overall response to the crisis (including resource flows).
  • Encourage in-country partnerships to contribute towards achieving CFA outcomes.
  • Maintain relationships with key outside stakeholders (the private sector, civil society (NGOs), regional bodies and member states in general (including major donors in particular)), and provide support as requested to the evolving Global Partnership on Agriculture and Food Security.
  • Support the members of the HLTF on key policy and advocacy issues, including reporting, stocktaking, resource mobilisation and high-level conferences.
  • Provide general support to the Secretary-General and the HLTF.

The Secretariat will also foster the evolution of a functioning Coordination Network made up of individuals from national authorities and institutions, NGO groups and country, regional and HQ staff of UN agencies, international financial institutions and the WTO, regional entities, foundations and research groups, private entities and donors.

The HLTF is not envisaged as a permanent fixture. HLTF members have decided not to establish new policy or fund-raising capacities for country-level work, nor do they want to see functions assumed by existing entities in the HLTF being duplicated. But the HLTF does anticipate the reinforcement and synergy of existing systems that encourage and support different aspects of country-level coordination. Business as usual does not seem sufficient, given the urgency and complexity of the tasks involved.


If there is a silver lining to the multiple clouds we face, it is that we have recognised their urgency and interconnectedness, and tried to act more quickly, with greater coordination and with smarter and more efficient tools. If the current food crisis offers an opportunity, it is that we can demonstrate that the international community is interested and able to work together to address both the immediate and longer-term aspects of these structural crises, attacking poverty and vulnerability at its core.

David Nabarro is Coordinator of the UN High Level Task Force on the Global Food Security Crisis (HLTF). Marianne Mulleris his Senior Policy Adviser.


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