From emergency relief to food security

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We must find sustainable ways of dealing with hunger, says Ertharin Cousin, Executive Director, World Food Programme

What is the most significant challenge in the transition from emergency relief to sustainable food security and nutrition?

To move from a situation in which hundreds of millions of people depend on emergency relief for their survival every year to one where we achieve sustainable food security and nutrition for all, we must first overcome the fundamental conceptual and institutional barriers that we as a community have erected between emergency and development approaches to international assistance. To do this, we need to step into the shoes of the people we serve and see the world from their perspective. People living in extreme poverty spend as much as 80 per cent of their income on food. In fact, more than 805 million food-insecure people do not have the luxury of distinguishing between their short- and long-term need for food. Neither should we. We must invest in food security and nutrition solutions for the most vulnerable, both before and between crises, to ensure that, when a crisis does hit, people are healthy and productive enough to withstand the shock.
When the impact of a crisis exceeds the ability of a population to cope, we [the World Food Programme] provide assistance for people to meet their food needs. We avoid negative coping strategies, for example by preventing families from selling productive assets, withdrawing children from school, or depriving infants of the calories, vitamins and minerals that their growing minds and bodies demand. Our effectiveness is directly related to our ability to provide assistance rapidly. Taking such preventive measures to reduce exposure to disaster risks and build a community’s resilience is also more cost-effective than large-scale humanitarian response. Investment in resilience brings substantial returns in terms of reducing the cost of humanitarian response and supporting broader developmental outcomes.

How can the international community overcome this divide between development and humanitarian assistance?
Achieving sustainable food security and nutrition for all will require a twin-tracked approach, one that gives equal priority to improving long-term, durable economic and agricultural productivity and the need to ensure access to nutritious food during a crisis. We must have an international aid architecture with financing mechanisms that reflect the reality faced by the people we assist. The Post-2015 Sustainable Development Agenda will only be successful if it is supported by a financial framework that breaks down the distinctions between development and humanitarian resources. This would include predictable, multi-year funding for food security and nutrition programmes that build the resilience of vulnerable populations before, during and after a crisis.

The need for appropriate financing mechanisms is even more critical given increasing climatic risk and extreme weather events. An innovative example is the Africa Risk Capacity, an African-owned, African Union-led financial platform that pools disaster risk and makes disbursements to participating states in the event of severe drought. By pooling risk across the continent, it can reduce the costs of accessing emergency contingency funds by as much as 50 per cent, and reduces reliance on international assistance. It puts governments themselves at the centre of disaster management and allows for a more timely and efficient response.
The World Food Programme [WFP] recently developed FoodSECuRE, a financing mechanism to leverage predictable, multi-year resources for resilience-building, disaster response and recovery. Traditionally, resources tend to be available when food security and nutrition indicators are already at their peak, and then decline before adequate measures to ensure disaster recovery and resilience-building have been effectively implemented. FoodSECuRE enables WFP and our partners, particularly governments, to respond earlier and implement coherent, sustainable, multi-year recovery programmes that maximise the opportunity to deliver longer-term impacts. FoodSECuRE reinforces preparedness within families and communities at chronic risk from climate-related disasters, while building resilience for the potentially affected to cope on their own in the future.

What can be done to improve the ability of governments to respond to food security and nutrition crises?
Political will, good governance and peace are the most critical factors that determine whether a state can make sustained progress against food insecurity and nutrition objectives. Many countries have dramatically reduced hunger by making it a top priority of their domestic agenda. The allocation of resources is clearly important, but resources generally flow from serious commitments made at the highest levels of government.

José Graziano da Silva, Director General of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), always reminds me that Brazil’s dramatic progress in improving food security was only possible once the Brazilian people and their government decided that it was unacceptable for anyone to live with hunger. For this reason, it is critical for us to generate the political will to end hunger by advocating that food security and nutrition remain high on the agenda of policymakers and various international forums, including the G20.
Having travelled to countries affected by crises over the past few years, however, I have developed an appreciation for the fundamental role that local government plays in food security and nutrition response. Having the right policies and strategies in place and strong, centralised coordination mechanisms is incredibly important, but we often focus on these issues without attaching equal importance to the role of institutions at the local level.
Local government and civil society institutions represent the frontline in food security and nutrition response, acting as the primary source for early-warning information, planning, coordination and implementation. Local actors are the interface with the people affected by a crisis, voicing the concerns and needs of affected populations. Strengthening the technical and administrative capacity of local government and civil society institutions is a clear priority for WFP and our partners.

Hunger has been described as a multidimensional problem. What does this mean for you?
I could not agree more with that description. It is the multidimensional nature of hunger that makes it so challenging. If we look at undernutrition, there is no single, one-size-fits-all solution. Undernutrition is not simply caused by lack of access to nutritious food. Factors including access to clean water, sanitation, cultural and dietary preferences, and household economy all contribute. We need to engage at the community level with multiple partnerships to improve childcare practices, hygiene and sanitation conditions, education, and food consumption patterns.

Organisations such as WFP focused on ensuring at-risk populations have access to nutritious food must coordinate with partners responsible for other sectors. Partners such as UNICEF, FAO, the World Health Organization and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) ensure we effectively address all the underlying causes of undernutrition in a given context. Also, the successful efforts of international organisations must reflect and respond to the national, local and individual direction of those we serve. Too often, we see ownership of nutrition programmes residing within a single ministry, such as health or agriculture, and poorly coordinated with the range of relevant actors. Unless steps are taken to develop comprehensive and strategic whole-of-government as well as whole-of-community approaches to addressing undernutrition, the overall impact of individual initiatives will be diminished.

What can be done to better coordinate global efforts to eradicate hunger and malnutrition?
Successfully fighting hunger requires an enabling environment that creates incentives for key stakeholders to sharpen their focus on improving food security and nutrition outcomes. The United Nations Secretary General’s Zero Hunger Challenge is a global multi-stakeholder platform that encourages the private sector, civil-society leaders, NGOs and governments to coordinate their actions at the country level. The Zero Hunger Challenge provides a global policy framework to integrate national and local food security and nutrition interventions, ranging from support for smallholder agriculture to maternal health programmes and the elimination of waste. This framework, already in place in more than 30 countries, reinforces complementarity and inter-sectoral collaboration, and provides a solid foundation for promoting sustainable development.

The Zero Hunger Challenge is tremendously helpful as a guide for where we need to go to eliminate hunger once and for all. However, we will only succeed if we can demonstrate the political will and commit the resources required for getting there.

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