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Getting food aid right

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The situation has become so bad around El Berde, with at least four successive failed harvests, that over half the town now needs food assistance. Nearly 30,000 people will receive rations this month, including 4,800 malnourished children © Marcus Prior/WFP

JOHANNESBURG, 1 March 2013 (IRIN) - Despite early warning information about the Horn of Africa’s impending drought crisis in 2011, humanitarian responses were slow to mobilize, leading to tens of thousands of deaths in the region and famine in parts of Somalia.

Now, a research team led by food aid expert Daniel Maxwell, a professor at Tufts University’s Feinstein International Centre (FIC), has released a paper, Response Analysis and Response Choice in Food Security Crises: A Roadmap, describing the factors that underlie how aid agencies respond to food crises. The paper, released this week, highlights the need for reliable analysis to inform aid agencies’ and policymakers’ decisions, not only in responding to these crises but also in preventing their recurrence.

However, the authors - Maxwell, Heather Stobaugh and John Parker from FIC, and Megan McGlinchy of Catholic Relief Services - point out, “There remains little in the way of an evidence base about what works best under what circumstances.”

Analysis for prevention

Response analysis should not simply ensure that aid is delivered in time to those who need it; it should also play a role in addressing chronic food insecurity, helping to end the vicious cycle of aid dependency.

“Response analysis is appropriate and necessary whether you are talking about an acute emergency or longer-term resilience programming - the range of options may be different, but the analysis processes are similar,” Maxwell told IRIN via email.

"the authors find there often remains a 'disconnect' between the information provided and kind needed to inform humanitarian responses"

Laura Taylor, policy head at the NGO Tearfund, said, "Smarter analysis before emergencies, such as cyclical droughts and food crises that we can often predict from warning signs - up to nine months in advance - will ground plans with a good understanding of the risks and underlying causes of vulnerability. This has been proven in the case of chronic hunger situations in regions such as the Sahel.”

Graham Farmer, global coordinator of the new Food Security Cluster - the UN’s mechanism to coordinate the food responses of humanitarian agencies - agrees.

He told IRIN via email, “Response analysis is a key element of preparedness and contingency planning… Such preparedness will allow us to respond faster, more effectively and in a more targeted manner.”

The study’s authors suggest various kinds of information should be collected before a crisis, such as market analysis. This information would include: the number and types of food traders in an area; historical commodity prices; production trends; consumer demand; access to markets; food quality; government policies; and weaknesses or bottlenecks in the food supply chains. The agencies should also be aware of traditional coping mechanisms and details of how households function.

All this information would help agencies analyse which communities to target and what kind of interventions would best ensure people are resilient to shocks.


Although a lot of effort has recently gone into improving assessments, the authors find there often remains a “disconnect” between the information provided and kind needed to inform humanitarian responses.

For instance, assessments often provide a snapshot of the current needs in a food security crisis, but humanitarian requirements change with seasons. Ideally, an assessment should include some projection of the conditions expected in the immediate future so programmes can be designed to address them.

The study also found that analyses often fail to take into account recipients’ preferences. When they do, recipients’ preferences are typically noted to justify an agency’s mode of response, rather than driving decision-making.

Additionally, the authors note, aid agencies do not base their responses solely on evidence and analysis. Other factors come into play, including agencies’ capacities, the personal experiences of staff, and funding and policy constraints.

“As a result, they often have to rely on assumptions - rather than analysis - when choosing emergency food-security interventions. This makes the need for more evidence-based decision-making processes more urgent than ever,” the authors say.

In most instances, agencies’ capacities determine their responses - for example, an agency’s nutritional assessment will lead to nutrition programmes - which can result in narrowly focused responses to complex emergencies.

Coordination is key

The report stresses that, while conducting response analysis, agencies must be mindful of how their work will affect the broader humanitarian context, taking into account what other agencies, governments, and local communities are doing to address food insecurity.

For example, an agency might roll-out a cash-transfer programme based on an assessment that concludes one such programme would not affect local markets. But if a number of agencies roll-out similar programmes, the cumulative effects could prove disruptive.

The authors say some collaborative work resulted from the response to the Horn of Africa crisis in 2011-2012, “but in practice, such approaches remain the exception rather than the rule”.

A coordination mechanism is necessary to ensuring all parties are aware of what is being done - the new Food Security Cluster aims to fill this role.

“Much of what we advocate is that this kind of analysis should be done at the cluster level, so that the response follows an overall strategy,” Maxwell told IRIN.

Collaborations across institutions help draw on the strengths of different organizations, Farmer says. “The cluster approach… should provide a safe environment - devoid of interference from external factors such agency agendas - for the development of evidence-based analysis and programming,” he said.

“That then increases efficiency and, through the efforts of national cluster partners, increases delivery and accountability to affected populations.”

Integrating programmes

Ideally, food and nutrition interventions and programmes that target livelihoods should be integrated, reckoned Maxwell.

Farmer says the aid community is moving in that direction. “At the global level, we have created a working group between the Food Security and Nutrition Clusters, looking at how to avoid duplication and increase synergy. At the country level, there are clear examples of benefits from clusters working together.”

Farmer says there is also dialogue taking place at the Inter-Agency Standing Committee “about reshaping our perspective on… cross-cutting issues such as gender, age, environment and so on. One potential push coming from the work is a focus on better targeting based on strong assessment.”

Tearfund’s Taylor says a key element would be for “donors to be more flexible with funding for budgets. Programmes shouldn’t be set in stone. This ensures that if a crisis develops over time, NGOs can adapt their responses based on the latest analysis from the affected region and avoid being locked into pre-determined budgets.”