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Fighting hunger in protracted crises: what can be done?

Written by Sara Pavanello


A staggering 925 million people worldwide are currently undernourished, according to the 2010 edition of The State of Food Insecurity in the World, published by FAO earlier this month. As we approach World Food Day on Saturday, this is a stark reminder that hunger remains a daily reality for millions of men, women and children around the world.

The FAO report focuses on food insecurity in countries where many people face crises that last for decades – not the result of a drought or earthquake in one year, but of years of violence, mortality, illness, disrupted livelihoods, and food insecurity. These have been called countries in protracted crises. For vulnerable people living in countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan or Somalia, hunger is not one-off experience; it is an acute and persistent daily threat to their lives and their well-being.

The issue of protracted crises is also a long-standing area of research by the Humanitarian Policy Group (HPG) at ODI. Our work has found that vulnerability to food insecurity in these environments is linked to the severe and continuous disruption of livelihoods over a long period of time. In Darfur, for example, the first couple of years of the conflict were marked by the rapid devastation of livelihoods. As well as losing loved ones or coping with the shock of displacement, millions of people lost livestock, agricultural tools and access to land. Those who remained in their home areas also suffered heavy losses. As the crisis became protracted, assets continued to vanish, the economy shrank, freedom of movement declined and ways of earning a living dwindled.

So what can be done for the 166 million hungry people FAO believes to be living in countries in protracted crisis? Responding to the humanitarian imperative of saving people’s lives and helping them meet their immediate basic needs is certainly necessary but, particularly in these contexts, it is simply not enough.

For the past decade and more, we have learned through both research and practical interventions on the ground that improving food security in protracted crises requires going beyond short-term, food-based responses to supporting people’s livelihoods. For people who have been food insecure for years and whose livelihoods are under constant threat, longer-term actions to protect and promote their livelihoods are key. There are many ways to do this, from activities to enhance people’s assets and their strategies to cope with crises (e.g. agricultural income generation, microfinance schemes etc.) to initiatives that create new skills, or interventions to influence policies and strengthen institutions (e.g. Community Based Organisations/local institutions’ capacity building, natural resource management, access to markets, land rights etc.). These can all improve livelihoods and food security in protracted crises contexts.

The enormous potential of livelihoods interventions to improve the lives of the world’s undernourished has not, however, been fully exploited. To date, the focus remains firmly on food-based, rather than livelihoods-based, interventions.

Reducing the number of people who suffer from chronic vulnerability to hunger is one of the most pressing needs of our time. Bold efforts are needed to strengthen a focus on livelihoods, especially around the following priorities, according to the FAO report.

  1. Livelihood assessments should be undertaken early, and should include an assessment of why people are vulnerable to food insecurity in the long-term, not just an assessment of their immediate, life-threatening needs.
  2. Before designing livelihoods programmes, we must focus on conflict and power dynamics.
  3. Humanitarian agencies must become aware of, and be prepared to engage with, the longer-term transitions that happen during protracted crises, such as rapid urbanisation;
  4. Emergency response capacity must be complemented far more significantly by livelihoods approaches and livelihood-based responses.

Over the next two years, HPG will be intensifying its work on the theme of resilience, which we hope will help us all to better understand how people cope in protected crises, and we would welcome the views of others who are working in this area. Ultimately, our goal is to help humanitarian and development actors to improve strategies and programmes so that, in future, fewer people will go hungry.