Challenging Dogma - Fall 2008

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Failure of Food Security Programs in Humanitarian Response: A Critique Based on Social Science Theories – Jo Fan Shen

U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) refers to food security as “when all people at all times have both physical and economic access to sufficient food to meet their dietary needs for a productive and healthy life (1).” The discussion of food security problems revolves around three key constituents: food availability, food access, and food utilization. One of the most significant impacts of food insecurity is malnutrition. As stated by Rossi et al., malnutrition continues to claim a massive cost of lives owing to the effect of widespread food insecurity that follows a circular cause-and-effect pattern of very low food production and extreme poverty (2). The unbreakable cycle results from the effects of mismanagement, war and chronic insecurity, and lack of geographical access to land and markets (2). According to Maxwell et al., humanitarian crises with food security dimensions are increasing in frequency, scope, and complexity (3). The increase can be attributed to the futile attempts of existing interventions to resolve insecurity. In fact, the programs failed to meet the standard measures of the Millennium Development Goal to reduce hunger. The first Millennium Development Goal aims to halve the proportion of “hungry” people from the 1990 level by 2015 (3). However, with less than seven years until the deadline, “we are confronted with the sad reality that virtually no progress has been made towards that objective. Compared with 1990-92, the number of undernourished people in developing countries has declined by a meager three million – a number within the bounds of statistical error (3).” Such dismal results demonstrate the need for a reformed approach to address food insecurity.

Food security is affected by the interaction of a range of factors, including socioeconomic, biological, agricultural, and physical; therefore, effective food security programs should be context-specific in order to address the issues that lead to insecurity: chronic poverty, rapid population growth, declining per capita food output, poor infrastructure, ecological constraints, limited arable land, inappropriate policies, disease and epidemics, poor water and sanitation, inadequate nutritional knowledge, civil war, and ethnic conflicts (2). This paper will have three sub-sections, and each will argue why food security interventions have failed to address the needs of people affected by humanitarian crises. The three arguments are titled Analytical Capacity, Programmatic Practice, and Role of Stakeholders.

Analytical Capacity

According to Riely et al., monitoring and evaluation systems are key instruments for strategic and operational management of food-assisted programs (1). The systems that should be included are program monitoring and impact evaluation, food security assessments, needs assessments, targeting systems, and early warning monitoring (1). Current food security programs either lack these components or the existing systems are sub-par. Therefore, I argue that one of the reason food security interventions failed is because of poor analytical capacity. Programs from the Great Lakes region of Africa demonstrate how approaches that are based on questionable assumptions can result in a misuse of food distribution and an imbalance of resource allocation (4). I will conclude this section by reasoning that the same stereotyped interventions are presently used and food insecurity remains rampant due to the inadequacy of analytical capacity (4).

Currently, food assistance is given as a “knee-jerk reaction to people’s suffering, rather than a measured response to assessed need (4).” The seven case studies described by Levine and Chastre fall under three separate categories: displacement, rural context, and urban context. Despite the difference in circumstances, the humanitarian response was same across the board: free food assistance, seeds and tools distributions and feeding centers (4). In other words, the relief agencies through all the cards they had at the Great Lakes and hoped one would work. The responses were general and non-specific despite the presence of complex, multi-factorial constraints and challenges facing food insecurity. Moreover, due to the lack of situation assessment, agencies distributed foods to “needy” groups without knowing to what extent the lacked food. Such questionable targeting results in overlooking groups who are truly in need and is simply a waste of funding. Another example is the allocation of seed protection ration. Levine and Chastre found that seeds were allocated for no apparent reason and directed at the wrong population (4). Even though the intervention lacked a food needs assessment, the agencies continued to infer seed needs from food needs. The cycle of faulty assumptions and wrongful distribution illustrate one of the flaws of food security interventions.

Due to the misuse of food distribution, the problem of funding and cost arises. Just as situation and need assessment were missing, cost-benefit analysis, environmental assessment, and impact assessment were also lacking. How do the interventions hope to gage the extent of its success without such monitoring and evaluation? Impact assessment is especially important because the results allow programs to recognize mistakes and strive for reform and improvements. Furthermore, the assessments allow agencies to justify funding needs.

At the moment, rather than taking an analytical approach that assesses both socioeconomic and psychosocial needs of the affected groups, the food security interventions are based on assumptions and “deal with symptoms not causes (4).” In other words, present responses do not address the real issue because assessments were not performed to conceptualize the issues (4).
Programmatic Practice

In this section I will continue to argue food security interventions are flawed. As a direct effect of inferior analytical capacity, food, whether pertaining to consumption needs or production, dominates current approaches. Food-focused programs ignores actual constraints to food security, such as access to land, markets, freedom of movement, ethnic factors, support institutions, loss of labor, lack of capital, diseases, and epidemics to name just a few (4). An effective intervention should address all these issues and treat the cause of insecurity rather than its symptom, or the lack of food. For example, in Eastern Masisi of the Democratic Republic of Congo, road construction made a “significant impact on household food security, through direct employment, improved security of movement, reduced transport costs and improved marketing,” thus, brining higher prices to producers (4). This example illustrates that food insecurity is a result of numerous factors; therefore, a non-food rationing approach more effectively improve security than food-oriented methods. Levine and Chastre claim existing programs lack economic thinking. With “greater use of market and cash interventions and reduce the use of food-based interventions,” food security has a chance in emergency situations.

Another aspect to the flawed practice is the separation of emergency and development response. Consider the case of Congo: Rossi et al. describes Congo as “a long-term forgotten crisis that is still characterized by short-term funding and long-term needs (2).” And also Ethiopia: Maxwell et al. states that “Ethiopia, despite record production, and despite billions of dollars worth of assistance devoted to alleviating chronic food security over recent years, nearly one person in eight required external ‘emergency’ assistance to achieve adequate food consumption this year (3).” What do these two statements reveal? A need to resolve the gap between response and prevention. As mentioned earlier, food assistance is a knee-jerk response to emergency; however, the overemphasis on response causes agencies to lose sight of its long-term goals: help the developing countries to independently support themselves. Most of the poverty-stricken countries have become dependent on specialized agencies, such as the United Nation World Food program, but these are all short-term policies (2). Without a preventive component in the food security interventions, these countries remain trapped in the cycle of extreme poverty and food insecurity.

Role of Stakeholders

My last argument will discuss the role of stakeholders in the food security interventions. The stakeholders involved are donors, operational agencies, non-governmental organizations, national governments, and affected groups. According to Levine and Chastre, communication and coordination between agencies remain limited or nonexistent because of reluctance to share information about their respective activities (4). Maxwell et al. attribute the unwillingness to funding competition among non-governmental organizations. The competition causes “private, voluntary actors to behave more like for-profit businesses, and led donors to behave in a oligopolistic manner (3).” How could an intervention that is created for the benefit of the needy be effectively implemented if the actors all have different mandates?

As mentioned in Programmatic Practice, the food-aid focused programs cause the affected groups to become donor dependent; however, the donors and agencies are fighting over who gets what. Instead of supporting programs that need the most help, the donors give to programs that will “make people happy (3).” The politics behind humanitarian appeals to donors contribute to the flaws of the food security interventions. Such impartiality exists because of the lack of evidence-based intervention and attention to the policy process. Both the actors and donors should generate attention to influence the policy process and work towards social mobilization of society to resolve the flaws and constraints that haunt current programs. Social mobilization is suggested because human beings do not operate in a vacuum. Each of our actions affects one another; therefore, addressing the complexities of food security requires the coordination and cooperation of all the players: donors, non-governmental organizations, national governments, and the affected groups.

Missing the Point

As Levine and Chastre cleverly titled article suggests, existing food security interventions in humanitarian response is “missing the point (4).” Current programs remain flawed due to inferior analytical capacity, antiquated programmatic practice, and confused role of stakeholders. While the flaws stay unresolved, new challenges to food insecurity are emerging, such as pandemic diseases, growing water insecurity, threats on labor productivity pertaining to obesity epidemic, global climate change, and increasing food and fuel prices (3). To address these challenges, food security interventions need a whole new transformation. A couple of proposed solutions include improve analysis, enhance allocation of resources and coordination, promote institutional learning, and support social protection (3).

Addressing the Failures of Food Security Programs in Humanitarian Response: A Proposal Based on Social Science Theories – Jo Fan Shen

Before describing the alternate approach, I will provide a brief recap of the previous essay Failure of Food Security Programs in Humanitarian Response: A Critique Based on Social Science Theories. I argued that current food security programs remain flawed due to three main reasons: inadequate analytic capacity, antiquated programmatic practice, and ineffective role of stakeholders; and in order to address these faults, food security interventions need a whole new transformation. Therefore, the proposed alternate approach will consolidate the short-term protection of food consumption with long-term improvements in production and access (3).

The alternate approach is a two-tiered system with a focus on prevention. Before an emergency situation and response take place, a disaster surveillance system will continuously analyze factors such as available pasture, agricultural production, population movements, market prices of staple foods, and water sources (5). The system will utilize the results to monitor emergency hot spots, build buffer stocks of potential supplies, and deploy an emergency relief team – all before a crisis occurs (5). However, in the case that a crisis does occur, the first tier of the system will dispatch a basic emergency package to the affected population; then, the second tier moves in with initiatives to transition the affected population from “emergency to self-sufficiency (5).” The basic package aims to fulfill distributive justice while the second tier initiatives expect to change the norm of a donor-dependent mindset. The initiatives include micro financing, construction of infrastructure, and school programs.

In addition to the disaster surveillance, another aspect of the alternate intervention involves the role of policymakers. The new approach re-frames the need of the affected population to effectively communicate the basis of destitution to the non-governmental agencies, donors, and the government. In effect, funding conflict is reduced while implementation of context-specific policies is increased. The last part of the new approach involves an international-based campaign to raise awareness about food security issues in emergency situations and to garner support toward ending malnutrition. This final installment will unite the activities of various agencies and donors, thereby, further reducing miscommunication and funding conflict.

The body of the essay will examine in detail how the new approach resolves the flaws of the current programs. Specifically, the first section will explain how implementation of the extensive emergency surveillance and situational analysis system will reduce the misuse of food distribution and enhance resource allocation. Section two will follow by describing the benefits of moving away from a food-focused, donor-dependent approach, to a more market-based, self-sufficient program. Finally, the last section will discuss how redefining the role of non-governmental organizations, donors, and governments can clarify the need of an affected population and influence the general society to care about food security issues. At the end of the essay, the missing point expressed by Levine and Chastre will finally be resolved and founded.

Improve Analytic Capacity

The implementation of an emergency surveillance system directly addresses the problem of poor analytic capacity. Not only does the system provide a baseline analysis of the current food security situation, such as the needs of the affected population and at what stage the agencies can intervene, but also, the system provides a continuous analysis that updates the programs; therefore, the programs avoid becoming obsolete and break the cycle of faulty assumptions and wrongful distributions.

But how does the affected population benefit from the new disaster surveillance system? The existence of a needs assessment and situation assessment program allows for proper distribution of food and resources; therefore, those experiencing food insecurity can receive the correct aid faster and utilize the aid efficiently, and in effect, be able to focus on other socioeconomic factors for long-term improvements. In other words, the affected population cannot achieve love and esteem needs without first meeting the biological needs of food, water, and shelter (6). The emergency surveillance program helps to monitor “hot spots” and maintain a stock of potential supplies to prevent recurrence of food insecurity; as a result, the affected groups can be empowered to go higher up on the hierarchy of needs.

Reformed Programmatic Practice

According to the Failure of Food Security Programs in Humanitarian Response: A Critique Based on Social Science Theories essay, another problem with existing programs are that the approach is overly food-focused, not context-specific, and lack self-efficacy. The new intervention is constructed in such a manner to address the current problems. As mentioned in the critique essay, food-focused intervention is a knee-jerk response to emergency situations. However, aspects of the food-focused programs do contribute to relief; therefore, the new approach includes the relief aspect of food-focused interventions by offering a basic emergency package during humanitarian responses. While the affected population is temporarily relieved from the crisis at hand, a second package, or the second tier, aims to provide community-centered initiatives and to encourage the affected groups toward self-sufficiency. The micro financing workshops and road infrastructure construction are two examples of what a secondary package may include. These initiatives will reduce food constraints to prevent future food insecurity reoccurrences.

The ultimate outcome is to change the current societal perception that the affected population is helpless and donor-dependent. By building this population’s self-efficacy with the second tier package, the donors and relief agencies will reduce the distorted perception of the affected group’s dependency. The reformed mindset will mobilize the affected groups toward self-efficacy. As a direct effect, the same population will be able to manage future emergencies independently.
Redefined Role of Stakeholders

Currently, the needs of the population are framed form the point of view of those in power, “private, voluntary actors behave more like for-profit businesses (3)” than relief agencies that serve to improve the lives of the needy. The new approach reframes food insecurity problems in terms of how the emergency situations affect the social, economic, religious, political, and cultural aspects of people’s lives. A new point of view forces the policymakers to recognize the problem at large – malnutrition and poverty – instead of bickering over fund donations and allocations. The alternate intervention replaces the litany of “we promise to reduce hunger and decrease poverty” with a story (7): You will eat three meals-a-day, you can shop and sell foods at the local market, and your children can attend school. A well-framed approach can empower the stakeholders to implement better, more effective policies that result in long-term improvement in production and access.
The last component of the alternate intervention entails a worldwide awareness campaign to put food security problems in humanitarian response on the international agenda. By mobilizing the masses, the result is increased funding and support for the policies. Food security does not happen over night (5). In order to reach out to all populations suffering crisis, continued funding is needed to support the second tier programs that will promote long-term improvement and self-efficacy.


Does the new intervention address the missing point? Will the alternate approach be able to face current and emerging challenges to food security, such as pandemic diseases and obesity epidemic? Yes and no. The proposal does address the missing factors in old interventions: assessment system, non-food-oriented initiatives, and united relief agencies. Even though the alternate intervention attempts to resolve the cause of the problem, until a proper testing phase and result analysis, the proposal cannot be generalized as a cure-all solution. Any modification to the new proposal will revolve around USAID’s definition of food security: when all people at all times have both physical and economic access to sufficient food to meet their dietary needs for a productive and healthy life (1). Currently, the world is still far away from satisfying “all people at all times,” but the mini-successes of the Farmer Field Schools in Cambodia and Malawi prove self-sufficient food security attainable and sustainable (8).

1. US Agency for International Development. Food Security Indicators and Framework for Use in the Monitoring and Evaluation of Food Aid Programs. Washington D.C.: Food and Nutrition Technical Assistance Project, Academy for Educational Development; January 2009.
2. Rossi L, Hoerz T, Thouvenot V, Pastore G, Michael M. Evaluation of health, nutrition and food security programmes in a complex emergency: the case of Congo as an example of a chronic post-conflict situation. Public Health Nutrition. 2005; 9(5): 551-556.
3. Maxwell D, Webb P, Coates J, Wirth J. Rethinking food security in humanitarian response. In: Food Security Forum; April 16-18, 2008; Rome, Italy.
4. Levine S, Chastre C. Missing the point: An analysis of food security interventions in the Great Lakes. Humanitarian Practice Network. 2004; 40: 1-30.
5. Action Against Hunger Web Site. Updated n.d. Accessed December 10, 2008.
6. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Businessballs Web Site. Updated n.d. Accessed December 10, 2008.
7. Wallack L. Framing: more than a message. Longview Institute Website. Updated n.d. Accessed December 10, 2008.
8. Success Stories. Special Programme for Food Security. Updated n.d. Accessed December 11, 2008.

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