It’s World Food Day today – why is global progress going into reverse?

October 16, 2017

     By Duncan Green     

Guest post from Larissa Pelham, who is a food security wonk with probably the longest job title in Oxfam (see end for its full glory)

World Food Day has come around again and with it the annual report on the State of World Food Insecurity. In a year which declared a potential ‘four famines’  – with South Sudan tipping into famine in March, it is perhaps unsurprising that the numbers of food insecure have increased to 815 million, the first rise in well over a decade. This blog unpicks the figures and trends and reflects on what this means for Oxfam’s humanitarian work.

  1. How is food insecurity quantified?

This year’s annual review introduces two substantial changes. Firstly, nutrition is now included as a core component of the report’s food security analysis, (albeit not the quantification), reflecting the commitments in the SDGs to make a more concerted effort to address the multiple factors behind food insecurity.

Secondly, a change in the way food insecurity is measured, including a new FAO indicator that actually asks real people about their ability to access food in the past year, from concerns about being able to afford it, to skipping food for entire days. Reassuringly, this more nuanced analysis, focused on people’s own perspectives of their situation turns out to be strongly correlated with the conventional methods of quantification

  1. What the data tells us.

The data reveals 38 million more people food insecure in 2016 compared with 2015, a reversal of the trend over at least the past 15 years (bringing the total to 8-11% of the world’s population depending upon the measure used). The reasons are complex. Firstly, there is the worrying rise in numbers and prevalence in particular regions, notably east Africa (33.9% prevalence), mid-Africa (25.8%) and the Caribbean (17.7%), with Africa slipping back to the prevalence it experienced a decade ago.

On the nutrition side, despite a 22% reduction in stunting in the last decade, 630 million children under 5 – a horrifying 38% – are categorised as ‘malnourished’ – whether through wasting, stunting or being overweight. All this has implications for individual productivity, economic growth and government health budgets.

Thirdly, anaemia affects 33% of women globally, with impacts on the later nutrition of children, on susceptibility to disease and poor health. Whilst breastfeeding has improved (with prevalence of exclusive breastfeeding up to 6 months at 43%) there are some notable outliers, such as the UK, which in 2016 reported the lowest levels of breastfeeding in the world.

The analysis points to three principles for overcoming food insecurity: (i) nutrition (ii) it requires coordination across multiple sectors and for Oxfam that means linking particularly with our WASH, gender and protection work; and (iii) these challenges demand different approaches across time, context, country and gender.

  1. What are the main drivers of food insecurity?

The report defines two main drivers of acute (ie short term) food insecurity: conflict and natural disaster, both growing and both major causes of the close to 1 billion displaced people in the world. These days people are displaced for an average of 17 years, mostly living in host communities rather than camps (only 10% of the total) and are only 25% are international migrants – the rest remain in their countries or origin as internally displaced people (IDPs).

With half of food insecure people living in states of conflict/civil war, food insecurity is both a factor and symptom of conflict: pressure on natural and public resources, decreased agricultural production caused by climate change and strong weather cycles raises tensions (rising food prices sparked riots in 40 countries in 2007-8); but conflict also causes displacement limiting access to food sources. All ‘four famines’ occurred in places affected by conflict. Reducing food insecurity and peace-building are mutually reinforcing.

  1. So what else can Oxfam and NGOs do to overcome food insecurity?

What this tells us is that the acute caseload we focus on actually isn’t so short term after all. We must focus our food security efforts on contexts of fragility, conflict and displacement, and think long term.

One set of interventions in our toolbox, emphasised by the report, is the role of social protection, broadly defined as predictable formal and informal transfers and services (including subsidies and allowances) to all or some of the population to prevent or overcome poverty and vulnerability (comprehensive social protection also covers access to basic services health, education and water). Cash transfers can bridge the divide between humanitarian assistance and longer term safety nets, provide predictable income support in the face of uncertain access to basic needs. Cash for work schemes can build livelihoods, infrastructure and productive assets. Community approaches can improve social cohesion, although some recent research is more cautious about the governance benefits from social protection. NGOs can – and Oxfam does – influence and assist government to help establish such systems (Niger), pilot projects that governments can take to scale (Kenya); work with community structures (Burkina Faso) and demonstrate that even in the most fragile of settings, fledgling social protection is still possible (Yemen).

The report also acknowledges the importance that informal structures play in food security: community networks are the provider of first resort in crises (in 2015 remittances to developing countries were more three times greater than official aid). But such structures of social exchange are weakened by conflict. As an NGO, we are well-placed to support informal mechanisms. It is critical that we pay attention to what is happening with the informal sector and provide support there, before it is undermined. Oxfam wants to see new measurements of food insecurity which take into account the changing nature of these social networks, as an early indicator of descent into acute food insecurity.

(In case you were wondering about Larissa’s job title, it’s Emergency Food Security & Vulnerable Livelihoods Adviser – Social Protection & Resilience, Global Humanitarian Team. Can anyone beat that?)