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Launch of the World Disasters Report 2011: focus on hunger and nutrition

Time (GMT +01) 13:00 14:30

Fred Pearce -
Journalist and contributing author of the World Disasters Report 2011
Simon Levine -
Research Fellow, Humanitarian Policy Group (HPG)
Mary Atkinson -
Economic Security Advisor, British Red Cross

David Peppiatt -
International Director, British Red Cross

David Peppiatt, International Director of the British Red Cross, opened by introducing the report. He said that the report itself is very ambitious, and that it may seem odd that the Red Cross is talking about an issue that is often thought about as a development, rather than humanitarian, concern. While the report discusses a wide range of issues, and argues that all must understand the linkages between the causes of hunger and malnutrition, the Red Cross is still concerned with addressing the symptoms and implications, rather than root causes. He also said that the data on malnutrition is striking and alarming, and that the level of need makes the situation one of humanitarian concern. He cited three statistics in particular:

  1. 1 Billion people go to bed hungry,
  2. 3 million children die each year from under nutrition and
  3. 90% of malnutrition is chronic, rather than related to acute crises.
This is not a problem of supply; the world produces enough food to feed everyone. Current levels of hunger and malnutrition represent a massive and avoidable disaster.

Fred Pearce, one of the authors of the report, spoke next. He argued that many of the problems of under nutrition stem from the fact that small farmers, who produce most of the food in Africa, are not supported. Instead, international development institutions and governments have focused on large agro business. The tension and debate between these two approaches (large agro business vs. small holder farmers) runs through most debates on how to support and boost agriculture. He further argued there has been virtually no research into the needs of small holder farmers and how they might be better supported. Further, small holder farmers have been undermined by two important factors:

  1. price guarantee mechanisms that ensured a fair price for small farmers have been decimated due to neoliberal trade policy,
  2. landgrabs by large corporations have displaced those who formerly used/owned the land and undermined their livelihoods.

Simon Levine, Research Fellow at ODI and contributor to the report, spoke next. He began by arguing that many of the problems of hunger and malnutrition in the horn of Africa are not “humanitarian problems” in a strict sense, and that they are the product local, regional and global politics, as well as inequality such as discrimination against pastoralists. He went on to say that disaster is a feature of the development pathway. Humanitarian crises are not the fault and the responsibility of humanitarian actors. In order to address the issues of hunger we need to:

  1. support farmers not farming—it’s not about producing more food,
  2. promote trade that helps not hurts—in the horn there is no trade that supports livestock production, and all trade goes through one or two ports which increases corruption and fuels the war economy,
  3. focus on malnutrition—1/3 of the world’s malnutrition could be solved with targeted interventions at scale, but no one is taking nutrition seriously.

Levine argued that there have been improvements in humanitarian response: lots of investment in food security analysis and the sophistication of early warning systems. However, this hasn’t necessarily made response better. There are a number of challenges to making response better: 1) Hidden challenges in resilience: how do humanitarians get others to take on what they see as a humanitarian problem? We need to rethink development at a local level—need to help people cope with changes in food prices and climate. 2) Humanitarians are uncomfortable with power—how do you square the causes of crises with the fact that humanitarian aid is supposed to be neutral?

Mary Atkinson, Food Security Advisor at British Red Cross, gave the last presentation. She profiled the work of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement in responding to food security crises in the Horn, and argued that the Red Cross’ network of volunteers meant that it had access at the heart of communities. She argued that in the horn, the situation is highly complex—and that there was a real diversity of needs, due to different livelihood groups, poverty and conflict. Further, she said that there was a real blurring of chronic and acute needs, which are difficult to respond to and communicate. Globally, there is a lack of public pressure and urgency on protracted or slow onset crises, despite the extreme needs. Further, preventative action like early mitigation activities are difficult to find funding for. We need to balance the need for visibility with longer term resilience building. The British Red Cross supports a community based risk management approach through integrated assessments and programming with a long term strategy to build capacities and build local actors capacities for disaster response. These needs are interrelated—health can affect food security—and need to be addressed together.

The subsequent discussion centred on a number of issues:

Speculation: many asked what the effect of speculators was on food prices. The responses were mixed. While there isn’t direct evidence to link speculators with food price spikes, it is true that speculators amplify price volatility, which has a negative impact on the most vulnerable.

Resilience: The discursive shift towards resilience has yet to be felt on the ground, but there is hope. Donors and humanitarians are more aware of the problems of short-term funding and more aware that early warning doesn’t necessarily lead to early funding. Further appeals need to be better written to include long term activities. Need for joint strategies between donors and agencies. Simon Levine in particular was not yet convinced that the full implications of the discursive shift had been understood properly.

Social protection: Social protection has too often been reduced to cash transfers. Cash is important but needs to be situated in a broader understanding and strategy that includes land rights, rights for widows etc. Further, we don’t know the precise effect of cash transfers on nutrition, as always, we need more analysis. Nonetheless, the key idea behind cash transfers is a belief in agency, which cash does achieve.

Justice: It was noted that conversations 20 years ago on hunger centred around injustice and political economy. That has shifted towards a focus on coping strategies—and it was commented that we need to shift from thinking about food security to food sovereignty.

David Peppiatt closed the launch with a call for humanitarians to focus on resilience, and better understand the linkages between humanitarian and development interventions.


The livelihoods of an estimated 12 million people are currently under threat in the Horn of Africa and nearly 4 million people in Somalia alone are in need of life-saving assistance. Although the world produces more than enough food to feed everyone, in 2011 almost 1 billion people will go hungry. This is not only felt in headline-making famines, but also in the alarming levels of malnutrition among the world’s poorest. The causes of hunger and malnutrition, both acute and chronic, are complex, involving global food markets, agricultural production, environmental degradation, poor infrastructure and governance, and poverty. When responding to hunger and malnutrition, the humanitarian system has tended to focus on providing food aid to address immediate acute hunger, rather than support livelihoods in order to promote self-sufficiency and to build resilience in the longer term. The challenge is how to ensure the humanitarian system – agencies, governments and donors – can better respond to early warning signs and address food insecurity before lives and livelihoods are severely threatened.

This event is the UK launch of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) annual World Disasters Report (WDR). This year the report focuses on global issues of hunger and malnutrition and examines the causes and effects of the global food crisis and sets out how the humanitarian system can better respond to both chronic and acute food insecurity.

David Peppiatt
, International Director for the British Red Cross will introduce the key findings of the report.

Fred Pearce, an independent journalist and one of the authors of the report,  will discuss issues of chronic and acute food crises focusing in particular on the relationship between agricultural production and food insecurity in Africa.

Simon Levine
, Research Fellow in ODI's Humanitarian Policy Group, will discuss how the report's findings relate to the current crisis in the Horn and some of the systemic and practical challenges to addressing chronic food security.

Mary Atkinson
, British Red Cross’ Economic Security Advisor, will provide reflections on the challenges of addressing chronic food insecurity, focussing in particular on the Red Cross experience in Africa.