Our Programmes



Sign up to our newsletter.

Follow ODI

Food shocks and food stress: Seasonality and the hunger debate

Time (GMT +01) 16:30 18:30


Stephen Devereux - Research Fellow and Director of the Centre for Social Protection 
Robert Chambers - Research Associate, Institute of Development Studies 
Bapu Vaitla - Hunger Watch/Action Against Hunger 
Samuel Hauenstein Swan - Hunger Watch/Action Against Hunger 


James Darcy - Director of Programmes, Humanitarian Policy Group, ODI 

James Darcy opened the event noting that it was World Food Day – an excellent opportunity to discuss the importance of food related shocks and stresses. He highlighted the fact that most analyses of hunger has a tendency to focus on ‘big picture’ issues – like price spikes and large scale famines – so the book "Seasons of Hunger" was a good way to refocus the discussion on perennial food stress related to seasonality. The authors term this the ‘cycle of quiet starvation’.
Darcy also said the book highlights the inadequacies of a binary view that divides the world into states of crises and normality. Normality is often not as ‘normal’ as it is presumed as people’s living conditions are often extremely precarious. That said, the book takes a proactive look at these issues and is full of hope, offering many different and well thought through solutions.

Robert Chambers argued that seasonal deprivation in rural areas has slipped off the radars of both policy makers and development practitioners. Thirty years ago there was a burst of awareness around this issue but that has all but disappeared with serious implications for those vulnerable to seasonal food stress.

  • Chambers made three key points:
    This issue needs to be understood as integrated seasonal poverty because many factors interlock and interact to causes these crises. For example, during rainy seasons, those who lack access to resources become increasingly vulnerable. Their job opportunities may be limited or they may be unable to go to work due timing and transport costs. In such situations, taking a family member to hospital presents a difficult opportunity cost because doing so could impact on their longer-term livelihoods. These vulnerabilities are particularly acute when combined with high food prices and can often lead to debt or malnutrition.
  • The failure of development practitioners to understand and capture issues related to seasonality is also a major problem. For the most part, practitioners tend to avoid carrying out their field work during the rains (for obvious practical reasons) but this leads to a lack of understand about how changes in seasonality affect people’s livelihoods. Furthermore, when fieldwork is carried out during the rains, it is often restricted to areas with paved roads which neglects isolated rural areas.
  • ‘Seasons of Hunger’ provides important insights on the way these issues can be tackled in practice but this involves getting the issue of seasonality back in the mindsets of development practitioners and thinkers.

Samuel Hauenstein-Swan argued thatseasonality represents the ‘father of all famines’ but that it is predictable, analysable, and there are tested solutions to deal with its effects. What is crucial to understand is that several shocks can often multiply which has a massive impact on people’s resilience. For this reason, there will be no solution to famine unless seasonal hunger is addressed.

Hauenstein-Swan narrated several stories about the hardships faced by different families in Malawi, Niger and Kenya, highlighting the detrimental impact seasonality can have on the rural poor. He said that people are sometimes forced to jeopardise long terms income to meet short term needs. These hardships come with significant social costs because family and community networks deteriorate as they all struggle to survive.

He closed his presentation by disagreeing with the argument that donors simply cannot afford to fund seasonal hunger interventions.

Stephen Deveroux focused on prices and markets to identify policy responses that could adequately tackle seasonal hunger. He used Amartya Sen’s entitlements categories to explain how seasonality can affect the way in which the poor acquire food. During the hunger season, food prices tend to rise and asset prices tend to fall reducing the poor’s ability to obtain their entitlements.

In the past there were a range of mechanisms in place to tackle these issues. These included grain reserves, input subsidies and pan-seasonal pricing. However, neo-liberal policies led to the demise of these mechanisms because they were labelled inefficient, unsustainable, and unaffordable. What is more, they interfered with market forces. This led to a shift from systemic structural interventions to projectised approaches. Nevertheless, some of the original mechanisms (such as input subsidies and food price subsidies) are now back on the agenda and or being complimented by other methods such as employment guarantee schemes and cash transfers.

Deveroux went on to talk about the effects of the world food price crisis on some of these schemes, particularly cash transfers. He argued that although these are not specifically called seasonal interventions they often end up being because they are implemented in or around the hunger season. The impact that these interventions have is also significant even if they do not resolve the problem entirely.
Recent increases in food prices have aggravated seasonal hunger making it both inter and intra annual. Inflation, seasonal variability and price rises all lead to more vulnerability. This has affected programmes; for example, a social safety net programme in Ethiopia in which the cash transfers no longer provided the same purchasing power to the beneficiaries. In some instances, there has also been backlash against cash transfers as food is now more valuable. Additionally, donors tend not to be able to respond to these changes very swiftly because their financing is not flexible enough.

There are three ways to tackle this: a) give up on cash and return to food aid; b) mix food aid and cash transfers to diversify the risk; and c) index-link cash transfers to food prices.

Bapu Vaitla presented a potential intervention framework consisting of three components: emergency assistance to tackle short term needs, social protection for the medium term issues, and rural livelihood interventions for longer term stability.
Interventions can comprise of reliable food security surveillance systems to help decide which types of mechanisms are best placed to reduce acute malnutrition. The mechanisms on offer include: community based management approaches, cash transfers, seasonal employment programmes, social pensions, maternal health, child growth promotion, weather indexed agricultural insurance, price banding, grain reserves and agricultural livelihoods support (access to land, water, seed, fertiliser and financial services).

Vaitla said the book focuses on the short and medium term solutions and identifies four types of interventions: community based management programmes of acute malnutrition, child growth promotion programmes, seasonal employment programmes and social pensions. These, he said, comprise a minimal essential package. The costs of these programmes are placed at a total of 25.81 to 48.52 billion per year and although this is a considerable amount, one only has to look to recent rescue packages in relation to the financial crisis to show that, if the political will exists, these amounts can in fact be raised.

Vaitla concluded by arguing food rhetoric should shift from a focus on policies to a focus on rights. This would help ensure that the notion of ‘a legal entitlement to food’ plays a central role in the debate. India is an example where this has happened – the right to food has been institutionalised as a result of advocacy and legal procedures. Civil society organisations made the case that starvation could not legally occur when the government continued to hold food stocks. As a result, clear lines of responsibility have been delineated and food has become a right that is legally enforceable. Recognising the challenges that may arise in different contexts, he argues the Indian example shows that there is potential to make food a right.

The discussion focused on a variety of issues:

  • The need to understand the impact of seasonality on urban as well as rural populations. Food price rises and increases in oil prices are having a significant impact of urban livelihoods.
  • Questions around agricultural subsidies in the West (such as the Common Agricultural Policy) which play a considerable part in increasing food stress and shocks. A comprehensive intervention will need to take this into account.
  • The need to use political economy approaches to affect policy chance since moral arguments and evidence-based research seem insufficient.
  • The cost of these intervention packages and where the resources to fund them are likely to come from, particularly in the midst of a financial crisis.
  • The extent to which what is being proposed will save money in the long term by reducing the need for emergency relief. Though there is currently a lack of data to make a robust cost benefit analysis, these interventions should seek to lay the foundation for longer term productivity. It is easier to help people stay above the hunger threshold than to lift them out of it.
  • The need for more donor flexibility in order to manage shocks and stresses related to seasonality and other global factors. It is necessary to shift from focusing on the types of interventions available, to developing ones that are suitable in tackling the needs of the poor.


Every year, millions of poor rural people across the world suffer from predictable and preventable seasonal hunger. Seasonal fluctuations in food stocks, prices and employment are responsible for much of the malnutrition and poverty that the Millennium Development Goals are targetting, yet seasonality gets very little attention in policy formulation and programme design.

The objective of this meeting, held on World Food Day, was to discuss the consequences of seasonality on hunger and malnutrition as well as the impacts of shocks, like the recent and ongoing food price crisis.

A new book, 'Seasons of Hunger' was also presented. It documents the failure of past and current policies to recognise and address seasonal dimensions of poverty. ‘Seasons of Hunger’ also reveals encouraging success stories, and provides a costed programme for a minimum intervention package to fight seasonal hunger globally.