Despite the fact that food crises can be prevented, they continue to arise due to the community’s collective amnesia on what kind of response has worked and what has not.
The emerging drought-induced humanitarian crisis – prevailing in countries from Niger in West Africa to Somalia in East Africa – and conflict-driven famine conditions in South Sudan, Somalia and Northeast Nigeria, have become a regular phenomenon.
Even though these food crises can be prevented, they persistently arise due to the development community’s collective amnesia on what has worked and what has not in famine response, recovery and resilience-building.
We know countries that have constructed robust policies, institutions, and food systems capable of withstanding natural and human-induced shocks fare better than those with weak systems, but approaches to development haven’t changed to reflect this knowledge.
A new approach to drought response and famine recovery must involve building durable systems at various levels. By creating strong systems for implementing policies, building institutions and growing and delivering food, countries can prevent the most deleterious effects of frequent shocks, and also have the capability to bounce back quickly to a normal development process.
Currently a large segment of population – close to 20 million – faces starvation and possible death. Following the declaration of drought and national emergencies, country governments and international organisations have begun their usual response routine: identifying the vulnerable population, estimating the emergency aid needs and planning the associated workshops and conferences.
While all these activities are a necessary part of famine response and recovery, it remains a puzzle as to why we keep “reinventing the wheel” to address a challenge that has long been part of the development process. Today, climate change is finally forcing policy makers to rethink their response paradigm: from “relief and development” to “relief to resilient food systems.”
The need for a paradigm shift is clear from the lessons from drought responses over the last 40 years. A key lesson is that unless national response systems are resilient to meet natural and manmade shocks, they will be continuously “firefighting.” Emergency resources will be repeatedly diverted to address annual cycles of drought, while countries lose ground on long-term development plans.
Policy systems resilience
The effectiveness of a country’s national policy system in identifying drought-related challenges and developing intervention strategies depends on the strength of the policy process. The actors in the policy process must develop common goals to address food emergencies and balance these goals with long-term development strategies.
Such balancing in Ethiopia over the past 20 years has built a policy system that is highly adaptable in managing drought while simultaneously investing in long-term development. For example, Ethiopia’s productive social safety nets for vulnerable communities also helped build local infrastructure for sustainable development.
Strengthening policy-making systems including safety nets and subsidies could simplify and shorten the decision-making process, allowing countries to focus their efforts on the most vulnerable groups without forgoing long-term development.
The Ethiopian Agricultural Transformation Agency is an example of linking long-term development with resilience-building initiatives. The agency coordinates action plans to help provide and enable policy on the assessment, response and financing of a drought-related crisis. A robust policy-making process under various circumstances can guide policy-making systems to ensure that they are responsive and accountable.
In this respect, the current drought-induced emergencies are an opportunity to strengthen national lawmaking for development and implementation of comprehensive policies and strategies to protect vulnerable populations both in the immediate and in the long run.
Existing institutions are inadequate for meeting emerging issues in the development process, let alone the complexity of challenges arising from drought and conflict. In the context of famine prevention and recovery, flexible institutions are essential.
For example, a well-equipped famine early warning system that quickly collects, processes and analyses data from around the country is fundamental. In countries where such systems exist, they can assess of the number of people affected and deploy the best responses more quickly than those without an effective system.
During conflict, however, key institutions such as agricultural research either function poorly or completely fall apart. Sustaining local institutions during the conflict period and using them effectively during response and recovery stages can help build their strength in the long run.
These institutions can be useful not only for aid distribution in emergencies but also implementation of social safety nets during normal periods. For example, during times of famine in Bangladesh, the government used schools as food distribution centers.
Developments in information and communications technology, such as mobile banking, provide opportunities for effective targeting and swift transfer of cash resources to vulnerable groups.
Cash transfers to remote areas can help promote trade and markets in those areas. This approach helps build sturdy local markets and creates demand for basic commodities that continue during normal times. Cash transfers through Brazil’s Bolsa Família programme is a typical example of this approach.
Food system resilience
Resilient food systems can help reduce the impacts of drought on food and nutrition security. Countries that have built efficient food harvesting or distribution systems are better able to prevent famines even when faced with severe drought.
For example, the Ethiopian government invested in service delivery systems to share knowledge on innovations in farming and to provide modern inputs such as high-yielding seed varieties and chemical fertilisers. Strengthening the resources available for communities is a key factor in preventing famines.
Foreign aid assistance in drought-affected countries should focus on both emergency help and long-term building.
A successful example is India’s rural employment guarantee scheme, which uses natural resources to build rural infrastructure for vulnerable groups. Such approaches supply crop and animal inputs, rehabilitate land and water resources and build micro-irrigation, all of which can help to fight future droughts in the short and long run.
In addition, famine prevention and drought responses need to go beyond country borders.
International and bilateral organisations have been effective in helping governments with famine early warning information and in coordinating food security and nutrition interventions, but in the long run have failed to build sustainable local institutions.
How the current emergency is handled has larger implications for the success of regional commitments such as the Malabo Declaration on agricultural transformation and the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
A large population is currently under threat of famine across the African continent from Niger to Somalia. Although triggered by frequent droughts, the famine-like conditions are mostly preventable, except in war-ravaged areas.
Countries with adequate resilience have managed to reduce the adverse effects of drought on vulnerable populations, while others have not.
Even with political will and the current level of international support, the need for building local support as a fundamental part of the response is too often lost to collective amnesia. But if we build on policy, institutional and food capacities, lessons from past efforts and innovations can help achieve food security and prevent famines in the affected regions.
Suresh Babu is head of capacity strengthening at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), a research center of CGIAR.