Food-security assessments in emergencies: a livelihoods approach

by Helen Young, Susanne Jaspars, Rebecca Brown, Jackie Frize and Hisham KhogaliJune 2001

This paper describes the theory and practice of Oxfam GB’s livelihoods approach to assessing food security in emergencies. A livelihoods approach simply means emergency programming aimed at supporting livelihoods, as well as saving lives. In terms of food-security assessments, a livelihoods approach involves assessing the longer-term risks to livelihoods, as well as short-term nutritional or life-threatening risks.

The first part of this paper describes the key concepts that make up food-security theory, and relates them to a livelihoods approach. These elements are availability and access to food (entitlement theory) and the severity of food insecurity in relation to meeting food needs, vulnerability, risk and coping strategies.

The second part of the paper describes how Oxfam assesses food security. The purpose of a food-security assessment is to determine the need, if any, for a food-security intervention. The type of intervention is influenced by the severity of food insecurity. This may be determined from two perspectives: first, by assessing whether people are able to meet their immediate food needs (the risks to lives); and second, the vulnerability and risks faced by different livelihood groups and their coping strategies (the risks to livelihoods). On this basis, appropriate interventions are identified, ranging from free food assistance to a wide array of livelihood-support initiatives, such as cash-for-work and de-stocking.

The third part of the paper uses case-studies to illustrate how Oxfam has applied its livelihoods approach in practice, and how that approach has been adapted depending on the types of livelihood in question, and the nature of the external shock. These case-studies comprise an emergency assessment of the impact of cyclone and floods in Orissa (India) in 1999; a monitoring visit for Oxfam’s response to drought in Wajir (Kenya) in 2000; and a review of Oxfam’s programme for conflict-displaced people in Uraba (Colombia) in 1999.

The paper ends by highlighting the key challenges posed by a livelihoods approach to assessing food security in emergencies. These challenges include deciding on the right quantities of food aid, and choosing which categories of people to target; how to combine food and non-food interventions effectively, and when to shift from a food to a non-food approach; and issues to do with neutrality and impartiality, particularly, but not exclusively, in complex political emergencies.