Photo Credit: © UNICEF/UN053753/Prinsloo

Food crisis and famines continue to plague many developing countries. Armed conflict and prolonged drought have left around 20 million people at a risk of starvation and death in Somalia, South Sudan, Yemen, and Nigeria, while several other African nations also currently face with food insecurity, largely as a result of climate-driven weather events. An estimated $4.4 billion in aid is needed to address these crises.

A recent IFPRI policy brief documents lessons for building a more resilient global food system in order to prevent future famines. The authors study the success of countries like Bangladesh and Ethiopia to point to promising solutions for other developing nations.

In Bangladesh, large-scale public investments in agricultural research, extension services, and rural roads, combined with private investments in small-scale irrigation and increased availability of improved seeds and commercial fertilizer, have all led to increased food availability and stabilized food prices in the past two decades. These investments have also helped tens of millions of smallholder households increase their incomes, leading to improved food access and food security. The government of Bangladesh has also focused on providing food to needy households through well-targeted food-for-work and food-for-education programs. Other programs developed in recent years have focused on maternal and child health education, leading to substantial improvements in nutrition for children. Between the early 1990s and 2015, child stunting in Bangladesh has fallen from 72 percent to 36 percent.

In Ethiopia, public investments in agricultural research and extension, promotion of fertilizer use, and expansion of the country’s road network has sharply increased the country’s cereal production over the past three decades. Ethiopia’s Productive Safety Net Program (PSNP) provides a well-targeted system of food and cash transfers to needy families in exchange for a work requirement, for those who are physically able. This program has largely replaced annual appeals for emergency food aid. The PSNP has recently been expanded include to educational and nutrition programs aimed at the nutritional needs of mothers and children.

The case of Ethiopia also shows the importance of policy changes t to increased food security. Throughout the 1990s, Ethiopia experienced significant market liberalization between regional boundaries, which allowed for increased private sector trade; as a result of this increased trade, in 2016, the price of maize remained stable even in drought-affected areas of the country. The Ethiopian government also increased its wheat imports during this time for transfer to needy households through the PSNP. All of these investments and policy measures likely diverted a major food crisis in 2016, according to the IFPRI brief.

Looking at Bangladesh and Ethiopia as examples, the authors argue that a multifaceted set of public and private investments, sound policies, and targeted interventions for vulnerable households are crucial to enhancing food security in other developing nations.

The brief’s discussion is particularly timely, as famine was declared in South Sudan in February 2017. An estimated 4.9 million people in South Sudan are facing food shortages, 31 percent of children under 5 are stunted, and 23 percent are wasted. The brief outlines a framework to help in the short term to prevent widespread starvation in South Sudan and to build a resilient food system for the country over the long term.

In the short term, food aid and targeted relief programs provided by multilateral and bilateral donors are badly needed; such programs played a crucial role in the achievements of both Bangladesh and Ethiopia with regard to food security. However, the brief emphasizes that there needs to be a balance between necessary short-term relief and long-term food security goals.

Over the long term, building a resilient food system is key. This resilience allows a country’s food supply to bounce back to normal or even higher levels after a disaster. In order to achieve this goal, the commitment of national governments to rural development and food security is vital. In both Bangladesh and Ethiopia, the key to longer term food security was the development of systems that reduced households’ vulnerability to food crises and famines when a shock hit. Resilient food systems can withstand stresses because they are adaptable; resilience can include such things as substituting a sweet potato production in place of maize during times of drought or drawing upon local food sources during times of conflict when the transport of external goods is often prohibited.

In the case of South Sudan, the brief finds that the county has a high potential to increase its cereal production, as currently only 5 percent of arable land is cultivated. Once peace-building begins, the South Sudan government could take a lesson from neighboring Ethiopia and expand agricultural extension services, provide educational programs focusing on nutrition, provide farmers with improved seeds and fertilizers, and invest in rural roads and infrastructure. All of these actions would help increase agricultural production and make the country’s food system more resilient, whether it is political conflicts or weather conditions that threaten stability.

In addition, using local institutions like extension services or schools in times of conflict to help distribute aid will sustain those institutions, which often fall apart during conflicts. By keeping these institutions useful, their resilience will be much stronger and they will be better able to continue implementing social safety nets during stable times.

Identifying and strengthening weak elements in a country’s policymaking process can build policymaking systems that are responsive and accountable, simplifying and shortening the decision-making process and resulting in swifter action during crises. By involving multiple sectors like agriculture, health, nutrition, water, sanitation, and finance in the policymaking process, disaster responses will be more robust. In addition, strengthening the capacity of communities to assess their own conditions and opportunities and engaging those communities in building food system resilience may also contribute to preventing famines. The current crisis in South Sudan presents an opportunity to strengthen the capacity of local institutions to carry out vulnerability measurement, mapping, monitoring, and analysis to improve preparedness and response for future crises.

However, the authors emphasize that famine prevention should not only be seen as a one-country problem, as clusters of countries are often affected by a crisis. International and bilateral organizations have proven to be effective in helping governments coordinate food security and nutritional interventions across borders, as well share as early-warning information. It will also be important to build regional institutions to support cross-border resilience.

Experience shows that unless national response systems promote resilience to both natural and man-made shocks, they will always be putting out fires. If emergency resources are repeatedly diverted to address annual cycles of drought and related disasters, countries will lose ground on long-term development. Based on the cases of Ethiopia and Bangladesh, the authors argue that investments need to focus on both providing immediate relief and making communities and their food systems more resilient over the long term. Saving lives through emergency assistance must come first in crisis-affected regions, but the next steps must sow the seeds for a more durable development process.

By: Jenn Campus

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