Lesotho + 6 more

Food security in Southern Africa: Changing the trend?


Review of Lessons Learnt on Recent Responses to Chronic and Transitory Hunger and Vulnerability

Executive Summary

This study was commissioned and supported by a group of agencies involved in the humanitarian response in southern Africa; OXFAM, WVI, CARE, the Regional Hunger and Vulnerability Programme and OCHA. The central objective of this research is to benchmark progress in the southern Africa region in understanding, and appropriately responding to, transitory and chronic food insecurity.

The 2001/3 southern Africa crisis has highlighted the long term decline in livelihoods, which provides the context for the rapid development of an acute crisis. The livelihoods crisis has exposed the limitations of a humanitarian response, which is more attuned to managing a traditional food crisis. Consequently a widely shared consensus has emerged on the need for new, and more appropriate, intervention models.

This review examines the progress made since the 2001-03 crisis in addressing widespread chronic food insecurity. This involves an assessment of changes at sequential levels; changes in understanding of the problem, how this has been incorporated into policy, and how programming has changed to align with the stated policy objectives and the underlying analysis.

This study does not evaluate the adequacy or effectiveness of the overall food security response, but rather identifies significant changes, and significant failures to change. The lessons that emerge from this reflection are intended to inform the refinement of food security policies and programmes by all stakeholders, including national governments.

The food security problem

There is a considerable body of research that points to the multiple and interlinked roots of the 2001/03 crisis. While harvest failures in 2001 and 2002 provided the proximate trigger, a number of studies pointed to a much broader set of underlying causes. The growing levels of extreme poverty, the epidemic of HIV/AIDS and weaknesses in regional governance have been identified as region wide causes of food insecurity. This analysis provides a basic agenda for action - and illustrates that this is a complex problem, requiring a multi-dimensional response.

It is also important to critically consider the extent to which this knowledge has been internalized by the various stakeholders and the adequacy of this analytical consensus. Three key points emerge from this reflection:

- While this is commonly presented as a 'regional' crisis there is strong evidence that the underlying causes vary significantly between and within countries. An array of locally specific environmental, social and political causes has been enumerated. This implies the need for a more nuanced and nationally tailored solution.

- The appreciation of the relative severity of the transient and chronic crises is still limited. The transitory needs associated with climatic triggers continue to demand the most immediate and urgent attention. However, the reality is that the majority of the hungry suffer chronic hunger. This insight suggests a fundamental reorientation of strategies and programmes.

- The dominant analysis explains food security in terms of inadequate food access. While poverty reduction is critical to reducing food insecurity, there is strong global evidence on the importance of female education, womens' empowerment and health. Again this suggests a reconsideration of policy and programme priorities.

The institutional and policy context

The need for a paradigm shift in food security policy and practice has been recognized for some time at the global level. The adoption of quantifiable targets in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) for the reduction of hunger and poverty - and the alarming lack of progress in sub Saharan Africa - has stimulated a commitment to changing the aid relationships that govern the delivery of development aid and emergency assistance. It can be argued from various perspectives (whether from a rights based approach or a consideration of aid efficiency) that greater government accountability is fundamental to establishing efficient and effective systems to meet needs and reduce vulnerability.

The current willingness of external partners to unconditional humanitarian assistance creates significant political disincentives to a government led response. There is now a priority on developing consensual plans of action that can be used to align resources from a variety of sources to implement national programmes. In this context the policy choices of national governments are of increased significance and all stakeholders - donors, governments, UN and NGO - are being challenged to contribute to the policy development processes.

A further cross cutting policy theme is the blurring of the distinction between relief and development interventions. The nature of the chronic crisis in southern Africa has highlighted the opportunity to increase the impact and sustainability of humanitarian work by rethinking the boundaries and linkages of these areas. This is a positive development that is broadly influencing the policy development and organization of donors, NGOs and governments. At a minimum this has resulted in more flexible budget guidelines and a greater willingness to address underlying causes within the scope of a humanitarian response.

RIACSO recognized this basic dilemma in responding to the 2005/06 crisis. The 2005 Strategic Framework for Humanitarian needs articulated the desire to respond through safety nets, in conjunction with a nationally led development response implemented at scale. Launching a parallel Consolidated Appeal Process in 2005 was avoided as counter productive to long term development, despite the major advantage of generating an immediate and tangible response.

The inter-sectoral nature of food security dictates that a large number of sectoral policies are germane to the food security debate. Recent policy developments are most evident in the areas of food security and nutrition policy, social protection policy and disaster risk reduction.

There has been widespread action in redrafting national food security policies away from a narrow focus on domestic self sufficiency to a more inclusive definition. Food availability, access and utilization are now widely accepted as necessary, but not independently sufficient, to ensure food security. This creates the necessary space for a dialogue around the range of causal factors identified in the analysis, although in practice this new consensus has had relatively little impact on practical strategic choices and action plans. A residual bias for agricultural development as a long term solution to food insecurity is evident at the national level.

Social protection provides a useful framework for considering a wide range of public actions to transfer goods and services (which could include food, cash or health and education services) to protect people from both transitory and chronic poverty and hunger. The interest in social protection has been directly motivated by the desire to achieve greater impact on chronic hunger and transition beneficiaries from ad hoc relief programmes to more predictable forms of social assistance. It is also directly associated with the goal of an on-budget national welfare system.

Several donors have advocated strongly for increased social protection. As a result early steps are being taken towards developing national social protection policies in Malawi and Zambia. However, national governments are noticeably more ambivalent. Important, and so far unresolved, policy questions hinge on the purpose, targeting, affordability and funding. Overall the development of a coherent social protection policy is proving to be a complex process. Building a national consensus and establishing a durable social contract will take time, require considerable consultation and a greater willingness to accept the validity of government concerns.

A third area of active policy discussion falls under disaster risk reduction. This encompasses improved disaster management, with a focus on emergency preparedness and response. Specifically it sharpens the focus on risk reduction and mitigation measures, to reduce the probability that natural hazards will result in a disaster. This policy process was initially promoted by the UN system at the global level and is now being rolled out at the national level. In practice few sectoral policies yet integrate disaster risk reduction.

A sub theme of particular concern is mitigating the impact of local harvest failures on the prices of staple crops. The large fluctuations in maize prices in the inland states of southern Africa have been a major factor in episodes of acute food insecurity (for example Malawi in 2002). However, opinion is sharply divided on how to resolve this fundamental problem. Some (including many governments) advocate for greater government intervention in markets backed by strong strategic reserves. Others (including many donors) argue that the market should be left to resolve the problem. In the absence of consensus the markets continue to fluctuate unacceptably.

Programme responses

This review attempted to identify major trends and changes in programme content and in particular major changes since the 2001-03 crisis. The southern Africa situation has highlighted the need to disaggregate the response, looking at how transient and chronic needs are met, and beyond this how underlying causes are being addressed.

The most striking finding is the lack of change in the emergency response at the aggregate level - as judged by levels of expenditure. The response to the crises 2001/03 and 2005/06 remained remarkably similar, dominated by the use of large scale food aid. An over emphasis on food aid is partly explained by the persistence of tied resources, but also by the absence of viable alternatives at scale, along with entrenched institutional arrangements and incentives.

While programme innovation has been considerable, it is still largely at the pilot scale. There has been considerable experimentation with alternative instruments to food aid. Several large scale cash transfer pilots have illustrated the feasibility of this alternative, but equally the necessary preconditions and limitations. Other pilots have involved the use of vouchers and commercial sales of food commodities. The conclusion is that there is no universally applicable instrument, but a need to tailor the choice of instrument to the specific circumstances and intervention objectives.

One of the most consistent trends has been the establishment of strong networks and coordination bodies. There are numerous examples throughout the region for information sharing, coordination, harmonization and joint implementation. Models of improved networking and coordination have spread swiftly and are being rapidly institutionalized, often under the leadership of national governments.

A number of pilots have explored the potential of integrating risk reduction into mainstream development programming - beyond the generic strategy of increasing household assets. These have looked at how risks of natural disasters can be reduced through community risk assessment and resilience building. Some of the most promising developments come from the work of the World Bank in piloting the use of insurance and futures markets. The pilot results have been positive, but the awareness of these products is limited and they have not yet been taken to scale. Overall there has been little progress in reducing risk levels, as demonstrated by the rapid escalation in emergency spending in Sub Saharan Africa.

The necessity of responding to persistent, chronic needs has prompted a flurry of donor funded social protection pilot schemes. These have focused on developing long-term social assistance to the most food insecure and destitute, and typically rely on the use of cash transfers. The preoccupation with the choice of instrument is somewhat misplaced, as the primary focus should be a proper analysis of needs with appropriate instrument then selected to fit the objectives of the programme. In comparison to other regions of the world there has been comparatively little experimentation with alternative forms of transfers (such as subsidies or fee waivers), or transfers conditional on human capacity development (such as health or education outcomes).

The Kalomo model developed in Zambia has been particularly influential to donor thinking and is being more widely replicated. This has demonstrated the importance of disaggregating the large target group and implementing a range of tailored social protection measures. However it is not clear if and how this experience will be incorporated into national schemes. The size of the potential chronically hungry case load is daunting and long term financial commitments by donors are not yet forthcoming.

National governments have invested considerably in social protection transfers. However, these have been markedly different to the donor model. Time bound, productive transfers (such as agricultural inputs) have proved more politically acceptable, despite the operational difficulties associated with such schemes. The most popular form of unconditional transfer is a basic old age pension, which has been incorporated into the national budget of several countries including Lesotho. This has several major advantages; the targeting criteria are simple and transparent, the targeting is socially acceptable and implementation is commensurate with national capacities. Similarly strong arguments have been advanced for social protection targeted to children, in particular AIDS orphans.

Ultimately resolving the chronic livelihoods crisis demands a development response. At the macro-level there is little evidence that development budgets to respond to the chronic and structural aspects of regional food insecurity have increased to match recent political commitments by donors. Nor have the political commitments of national governments been matched by increased expenditure on key sectors such as agriculture.

As donors have sought to improve long-term livelihoods in an emergency context there has been a considerable blurring of the boundaries between relief and development activities. 'Emergency' resources are being increasingly utilized in protecting and building of assets. This trend risks running counter to fostering harmonized nationally led development programmes.

A common set of interventions characterize the livelihood programmes of NGOs, UN agencies and government. These centre on enhancing agricultural productivity through improved technology use, water management, access to credit and markets. Again such interventions remain largely at the pilot level. Despite often enthusiastic individual endorsements the quantifiable evidence on impact remains extremely sparse. This in turn undermines the possible case for scaling up. Furthermore it is possible to critique the scope of the livelihoods programmes which maintain a strong bias on boosting agricultural - specifically crop - production. Fewer livelihood interventions target livestock keepers, traders, the landless and urban dwellers.

Successful livelihood interventions have the potential to benefit poor households at the margins. As such they deserve support and where possible to be scaled up. But equally it is hard to envisage that these innovations will kick-start the economic transformation in rural southern Africa. The humanitarian response cannot substitute for adequate long-term development. It is deeply worrying that there seems little agreement on how to achieve macro-economic growth and consequently chronic food insecurity is likely to remain an obdurate problem.

Information systems

Food security information is provided through a myriad of sources operated by governments, donors, multi-laterals and NGOs. However, the development of the national and regional Vulnerability Assessment Committees (VACs) has been the dominant information system innovation.

There is considerable consensus over the added value of the VAC system. The improvements in the information quality are cited as one of the most positive aspects in the handling of the southern Africa crisis. This includes providing timely and credible emergency needs assessments, methodological improvements, building consensus and reinforcing the capacity of national governments.

However, a major criticism of the VAC analysis is the continued primacy of a food response. The VACs are cognizant of their dual role in spanning responsibility for informing both relief and developmental actions. However, transforming vulnerability information into concrete recommendations to address underlying causes is technically challenging. It also move into the political realm - which sits uncomfortably with the non judgemental humanitarian perspective. Consequently the VACs have remained more confident in providing technical recommendations that estimate and respond to needs.

There is demand for the VACs to improve the technical quality of the analysis, for example by improving the accuracy of the estimates, widening the scope of the assessment to include urban areas, improved disaggregation of transient and chronic needs, providing tightly analysed response recommendations and evaluating the impact of previous interventions. However, the pressure to increase the complexity of the analysis needs to be balanced against the ability to sustain the analytical capacity within a government system.

It can be argued that the fundamental challenge for VACs occurs at the political, rather than the technical level. Currently national governments are often politically disinterested and secondary clients for the VAC analysis. Therefore the primary challenge is to build accountability and responsibility for food security at the national level.

Lessons learnt

The rich contextual analysis of the food crisis that has occurred since 2001-03 has challenged the humanitarian community to not only address the acute emergency, but to respond to the entrenched chronic livelihood crisis. The horrendous poverty rates of southern Africa provide a deeply unpromising context to work in. Consequently the signs of positive progress that are evident are all the more laudable.

However, it is clear that food security indicators in the region continue to worsen. Consequently urgent changes are needed to reverse the declining food security trend. The scale of the challenge cannot, and should not, be under estimated. It is therefore imperative to draw out and capitalize on the key lessons from the experience of the recent past.

The report concludes by summarizing the key lessons that have emerged in the region over the past five years. Stakeholders need to consider the implications of these findings in formulating their future food security actions at the analytical, policy and programme levels.