What can be done to achieve food security in protracted crises?

September 24, 2008
Luca Alinovi and Luca Russo, FAO

For too long, we simply equated a food security problem with a food gap, and a food gap with a food aid response.”*

Achieving food security in protracted crisis situations – which are often accompanied by violent conflict and may last for decades – is a major challenge. As crises continue over time, supplying food aid risks becoming a default response while not enough is done to achieve long term food security. Evidence confirms that response usually consists of a long series of short term “emergency” interventions that overlook the fact that the causes for protracted crises are often structural.

And yet, deeper analysis often reveals that, structural issues such as land tenure, competition over natural resources and failing institutions are at the root of protracted crises. They also play a relevant role in further fuelling conflicts. Indeed, structural factors are exactly why these crises persist in time and yet little is done to deal with these issues.

Undoubtedly, where institutions have almost totally collapsed, it is difficult to find suitable entry points for intervention. This also brings up the question of how people (re)organize themselves when governments and institutions are weak – or even worse, predatory – and how external actors fit into the overall picture. In addition, deeper analysis may be difficult to conduct in these highly volatile, often dangerous situations with dynamics that are difficult for outsiders too understand.

So where does one begin? Working closely with local stakeholders is perhaps the only way of contributing to a process of conflict transformation and overcoming the superficial analysis and detrimental response that follows from not understanding the complex dynamics at play. As an example of what might happen when complex dynamics are not well understood, a recent book on protracted crises tells the story of how “the humanitarian community supported the Area Rehabilitation Scheme in Southern Sudan’s Nuba Mountains, in spite of the fact that it was instrumental to the Government of Sudan’s policy of depopulating areas under SPLM/A control and was consequently a factor in the conflict.”** In the same study, Pantuliano notes that the NMPACT programme in the Nuba Mountains was successful because it brought together local stakeholders and participants from both sides of the conflict in a participatory way.***

External actors should also work harder to identify and support patterns of resilience. They should also acknowledge that people are often already acting for the long term and not merely waiting for the “emergency to be over.” And yet, appropriate responses by local actors or external innovators have rarely been supported by the international community because of factors such as inappropriate delivery mechanisms, poor analysis and misconceived policies.

Windows of opportunities do open up even under the most stressful situations. For example, against all odds, studies show that people continue to invest in assets such as land and livestock. Furthermore, aid agencies often overlook the fact that markets continue to function – and even flourish. For example, Somalia had a buoyant currency, largely supported by remittances, within two years of the total collapse of the state. Trade with neighbouring countries flourished and Somali entrepreneurs took advantage of emerging technologies, such as mobile phones, for new business opportunities.

At the very least, it is important not to hinder patterns of resilience. For example, distributing free agricultural inputs and indiscriminate food aid could be counter-productive when local markets are functioning adequately.

To conclude, it is vital to address immediate and institutional needs – as well as policy and livelihoods dimensions of crises – to decrease vulnerability while building viable and resilient mechanisms in these societies. This would require a rethinking of aid delivery mechanisms and architectures, innovative and forward-looking approaches, strategic alliances and political will. It would require “thinking beyond even when you cannot yet act beyond” (Workshop report: Food Security in Protracted Crises. FAO, Rome, 11–12 April 2006).

Do give us your views and experiences:

Is there too much food aid in protracted crisis situations or kjust not enough other assistance?

Do you have examples of good and innovative projects that have helped to build food security in protracted crises?

Or examples of bad practice?

Note: A related seminar “Beyond Relief: Food Security in Protracted Crisis” took place at ODI on September 25, 2008.

* Maxwell, Dan. Improving Food Security Analysis and Response: Some Brief Reflections. Keynote speech at the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification workshop. Rome. 21 March 2007.

** Alinovi,L., Hemrich,G., & Russo,L. (ed) (2008) Beyond Relief: Food Security in Protracted Crisis. FAO and Practical Action Publishing. Rugby, U.K. p.226

*** Indeed, the NMPACT programme “constituted a major breakthrough in that it became the first and only programme to be subscribed to by both the GoS and the SPLM while the conflict was still in an active state.” (see Alinovi et al. p.42)


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