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Five ways to build famine resilience

10 Apr 2012
Olivier De Schutter -- UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food,
Last year's famine in the Horn of Africa, and the mounting crisis in the Sahel, are evidence of the clear threat posed by recurrent famines, particularly in regions prone to extreme climate conditions. But equally clear are the steps that must be taken, level by level, to mitigate, manage and eventually eradicate this threat, and thus protect the right to adequate food even in times of crisis.

Firstly, short-term emergency assistance has a crucial role to play. The international community must ensure that emergency food reserves are pre-positioned in risk-prone regions, so that where local purchases are not possible, humanitarian agencies have access to food stocks below the market rate. While much remains to be done, this message has been transmitted more clearly in the current Sahel crisis than in the Horn of Africa famine of 2011. We must not wait until people are starving in order to act. According to a damning report from Oxfam and Save the Children, early warning systems flagged up the Horn of Africa food crisis as early as August 2010, but a full response came only after decision-makers could see evidence of it on the ground.

Secondly, local planning is key. In the Sahel, as in the Horn of Africa, governments must - with the help of international relief and development agencies - set up comprehensive anti-drought plans which identify in advance what resources are needed and where they should come from. The international community must meanwhile ensure that its crisis response tools are fit for purpose. Food aid is often counter-cyclical: donors are more generous when prices are low due to significant harvests, thus when needs are lower. Standing regional food reserves should be set up to enhance access to affordable stocks as soon as needs begin to rise.

The G20 Ministers of Agriculture, meeting under French presidency, promised to set up such emergency food reserves during the June 22-23, 2011, meeting - a welcome initiative, particularly if it is developed to allow these stocks to be deployed to counter early signs of price volatility, and not only as a crisis tool once food insecurity degenerates into famine. Indeed, the establishment of food reserves should be seen also as means to improve the incomes of small-scale farmers, who often lack adequate access to markets and for whom the development of such reserves could represent an important opportunity if they are paid adequate prices. And it could be seen as a way to reduce price volatility on domestic markets by releasing foodstocks at affordable prices for poor consumers, based on a definition of "crisis" triggering the intervention of such foodstocks in a way that includes significant price increases or important income losses for certain groups of the population.

In a report submitted to the Human Rights Council in March 2009, I suggested we seize the opportunity to reform the 1965 Food Aid Convention (FAC), and define donor states' commitments more strictly. As the FAC is being transformed into a Food Assisstance Convention, this proposal seems to be relevant today more than ever. The FAC is the only formal international treaty that aims to secure signatory governments'commitments with regard to food aid. One option for reforming the system would be to commit developed countries to deliver a percentage of expressed needs in developing countries, instead of food aid volume.

Thirdly, a comprehensive shift in farming practices must be undertaken to foster climate-resilient agriculture. What is needed are diverse farming systems, agroforestry, and reservoirs to capture rainfall and to allow agricultural producers to withstand droughts. Each country must adopt a drought strategy that clearly defines which actions must be taken, by which authority, with which resources, in order to assist the communities affected.

Fourthly, we must encourage cross-sectoral approaches. Chronic malnutrition is the result not only of a lack of food, but also of bad feeding practices, poor healthcare, and lack of access to safe drinking water. In Niger in 2011, the harvests were at a historic high, but 900,000 children were still severely malnourished. We need measures beyond agricultural policies: securing the right to food of vulnerable communities should also guide the action of ministries of health and education, and leadership in adopting measures to avoid massive violations of this right should come from the highest level of Government.

Finally, we must fundamentally reform the global food system. We must enable food insecure countries to move away from a dangerous over-reliance on trade and aid by rebuilding their agricultural sectors. In many poor countries, investment in agriculture has focused on a limited range of export crops, and too little has been done, in contrast, to support smallholders, who produce food for their local communities. By supporting these poor farmers, we could enable them to move out of poverty, and enable local food production to meet local needs.

Fighting famine means mobilising the technologies to predict food shortages, and improving the governance capacities to manage it. Both of these things are well within our grasp. And moving beyond famine means progressively embracing farming practices which are proven to be an effective buffer against climate uncertainties, and visions of how to realize the right to food which do not leave communities vulnerable to volatile world food prices.