Logo UNICEF Innocenti
Office of Research-Innocenti
menu icon

Tackling food security crises in Africa, lessons learnt and unlearnt

12 Apr 2012
Angela Raven-Roberts, PhD - Executive Director of Humanitarian Accountability Partnership,
In July 2011, the United Nations declared a major food crisis in the Horn of Africa and 'famine' was declared for parts of Somalia. This triggered the now familiar immediate advocacy campaigns, calls for resources and 'surges' of staff, as organizations scrambled to markedly enhance operations in the affected countries. At the same time, commentators, academics and agencies debated the causes or triggers of the crisis, making comparisons with crises past and calling for reflections on the 'lessons learnt'. As a new (or rather recurrent) crisis unfolds in the Sahel, these familiar interventions and discussions are taking place once again.

Whilst both regions share some historical and contextual similarities, there are key differences. These need to be examined to extract lessons and, importantly, discern triggers and causes that augment and exacerbate prevailing vulnerabilities. The specificity of each crisis needs to be understood within the context of communities that are managing and adapting to complex interplays of political, environmental and economic factors and conflict- and climate change-induced processes. These, in turn, initiate other processes of social change, some linked to the legacies of previous interventions. Particular dynamics that deserve scrutiny include, inter alia, land tenure systems, transnational and regional migration and refugee movements, water resource management, large-scale commercial agriculture, rural and urban relationships, and the role of international mining and agricultural companies.

Both regions feature in debates over food security and the resiliency of African agricultural systems given climate change, global food and economic crises, and continuing/emerging arenas of conflict. There are again renewed calls for strengthened policies and accelerated programmes to promote agricultural innovation, reduce disaster risks, protect natural assets and expand trade and market systems. The nearly two decades old debates about bridging humanitarian relief and longer-term prevention, mitigation and development strategies is being recast under the rubric of 'resiliency' to be achieved through integrated coherent polices and joined-up programmes targeting risk reduction, social protection and livelihood support. Such 'new' approaches must be grounded in the accumulated years of analysis and crisis response practice dating to the 1970s, i.e.
a) famines are not sudden events but rather crises whose onset develops slowly and arises from a specific combination of threats and vulnerabilities;
b) vulnerabilities are not natural occurrences alone but are embedded in social, economic, political and environmental processes; and,
c) the prevention of malnutrition, mortality, morbidity and crisis-induced destitution can be assured through a dual approach to both strengthen the resilience and reduce the vulnerability of livelihoods systems.

Important innovations include cash transfers and 'safety net' programmes to protect assets and ensure access to food and income during periods of seasonal food insecurity of chronically poor households. Over time, early warning systems have improved in terms of both data and analysis. Examples include more accurate and more nuanced systems of alerts and alarms for pastoral livelihood systems and related staged responses needed to mitigate against irreversible losses of livestock, including core breeding herds.

There is therefore, not a shortage of lessons and good practices; however there remains a recurring lack of institutionalization for consistent performances. Evaluations reveal a persistent lack of coordination, late response to early warning, inexperienced and overwhelmed staff, inadequate preparedness analysis or strategic prioritized planning, insufficient participation of and information sharing with beneficiaries, etc. This familiar litany of challenges, crisis after crisis, is troubling. What will it take to finally engender a humanitarian and development system that works coherently, is informed by history, is grounded in evidence and is accountable to those most affected by crises?

Consistency of practice, strategic collaboration amongst agencies, adherence to standards and agreement on standard operational procedures are required. This needs first and foremost to emerge out of conceptual clarity linked to practical action, starting with how crises are analyzed and what strategic framework will be applied to shape responses. Recent decades have witnessed interdisciplinary and holistic methodologies (such as the livelihoods framework) that enable actors to reach consensus on the key factors driving crises and how each actor can be situated in an overarching strategy of response to complex vulnerabilities. The Consolidated Appeal Process attempts to provide such a framework; it often falls short of being an analytical tool and ends up being a wish list of projects, reflecting an utter lack of willingness of a range of agencies, organizations and institutions to work together for a common goal. Better success has been realised on the development front in the CCA/UNDAF process, with a key difference being the centrality of government in development and its absence in humanitarianism.

What do these lessons imply for UNICEF? How does UNICEF, as a knowledge-based organization, integrate the many disciplines that inform the sociologies of disaster risk reduction/crisis response and of childhood/other aspects of child protection and development? Whilst UNICEF has improved its rapid deployment capacity and implementation of the core commitments of humanitarian response, there remains a persistent ambivalence and dichotomy between what is considered development (normal) work and humanitarian action. The multiple definitions of 'protection' and 'risk reduction' as well as where these are 'housed' reflect this lack of clarity. The adoption of social protection as a core concept may provide an opportunity for the synergy of practices and approaches; the language of livelihoods, vulnerability, risk reduction, prevention and developing assets for resilience resonates for both child protection and community development. To the core (process-based) competencies required of staff should be added mandatory familiarization with the basics of the sociology of childhood, essentials of child development, health, nutrition and livelihood analysis, i.e., substance-based core competencies. UNICEF, as the global standard-setting agency for children, whilst advocating for the integration of these realms of knowledge into a comprehensive situation analysis, should also develop tools for evaluating and researching the outcomes of these approaches.