High food prices have brought social unrest but they have also provided a "window of opportunity" to review global policies on the response to food insecurity, said a leading food aid analyst as experts and aid agencies began an unprecedented strategic re-think at a three-day meeting in Rome on 16 April.
Events in the past week have borne out the International Monetary Fund's warning that the consequences of a 48 percent hike in food prices since 2006 "will be terrible": the Haitian government fell for apparently having done little to stem week-long food riots. A string of protests, some violent, over food price rises have also hit several West African and Asian countries.
This has created a sense of urgency even "if it has highlighted one element in the policy debate of short-term response, such as food aid", according to Daniel Maxwell, associate professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Boston-based Tufts University.
High food and fuel prices have hit food aid hard. "In 2007, food aid represented 34 percent of global humanitarian contributions, down from almost 50 percent in 2000 ... For the 2008 CAP [Consolidated appeals Process] food as a sector represents 36 percent of the total appeal,” said a policy document, Rethinking Food Security in Humanitarian Response.
“In other words, there is likely to be far less food aid available in 2008, and this continues a downward trend in this sector that started several years ago."
The document is being used as the basis for the three-day conference organised by the relief and development agencies, CARE and Oxfam, at the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation's headquarters in Rome.
The authors - Maxwell, Patrick Webb, Jennifer Coates and James Wirth - have raised questions on the need for better analysis: assessment of need and measurement of impact; effectiveness of response; the need for greater attention to risk reduction; aid architecture - should agencies be structured to specialise in humanitarian or development issues; funding - should there be separate funding streams for the Consolidated Appeals Process (CAP) and Flash Appeals; and policy reforms – re-examining the mandates, roles and future of humanitarian agencies and non-governmental organisations (NGOs).
The current crisis triggered by food prices has not only forced the aid community to look more closely at emergency aid distribution systems but also at development opportunities to find long-term solutions, said David Kauck, CARE's senior policy analyst.
As the document pointed out, there is an overemphasis on response, which is "often too little too late", rather than on prevention, "a failure to sustainably alleviate suffering, and a steady erosion of many populations' ability to cope with the twin threats of chronic suffering and repeat shocks".
The need to re-think
Years of humanitarian assistance often does not seem to noticeably reduce dependency. "In the period between 2003 and 2006, Somalia received roughly US$1 billion in net disbursements of Overseas Development Assistance (ODA), compared with only $161 million in 1995-96.
“It is a country that gained visibility as one of the most distantly affected by the Asian tsunami in 2005, and earned a degree of geopolitical significance in the global "war on terror" during 2006-07,” the authors of the policy document noted.
Yet, in 2008 Somalia features prominently in the Consolidated Appeals Process (CAP), with an estimated need for humanitarian aid amounting to $406 million. Apparently, neither food insecurity nor humanitarian need have been effectively resolved in Somalia to date. Why not?"
Possibly "conditions have recently deteriorated - which is partly true, given the continued absence of stable governance, competing political agendas, armed conflict, and repeated natural shocks (droughts, floods, locusts)," the authors argued.
"On the other hand, it could be that resources used in recent years have been inadequate to the task of resolving or at least mitigating such shocks, or the wrong kind of assistance was given, or aid was used in the wrong ways, or resources were spent very inefficiently - all of which may also be true," they commented.
However, some countries appear to be improving in their food security, with reduced emergency appeals, "some things are apparently being done right; what are those things, and are they replicable? Lessons need to be shared on how to leverage and maximise such gains-which in many cases remain very fragile,", said the authors.
The document also warned that there were new drivers of humanitarian crises: the rising frequency of natural disasters, partly as a result of climate change; conflict-related deaths might have declined but the impact of conflicts - disease, displacement and trauma among other issues - would continue to unfold.
The number of people affected by disasters has continued to grow since the 1980s. Based on those upward trends, "by 2050 natural disasters could have a global cost of over US$300 billion a year, and will be a key element in the failure to meet the Millennium Development Goals," said the document.
The humanitarian crises triggered by natural disasters have been aggravated by the "rising concentration of people in vulnerable locations, and the growing vulnerability of people in poorest countries - particularly those exposed to eroded natural resources - as well as depletion of human capital due to HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and other debilitating diseases".
Climate change is likely to aggravate existing production and consumption constraints in food-insecure countries, besides the current food and fuel prices, which are also cause for concern, the authors point out.
Nearly one-third of the world's extremely poor people - 27 percent – live in countries that are fragile or conflict-affected and will also be vulnerable to additional hazards, whether natural disasters or new forms of conflict such as "resource wars" - contested use of natural resources, including water, oil and even arable land – which, according to some analysts, will become increasingly likely.
"This suggests a need for more focus on linkages between governance failures (including breakdown in delivery of services), conflicts, and humanitarian outcomes (such as epidemics...)," the authors warn.
"The scale of the problem we face today [because of these new drivers] is daunting - we can be overwhelmed by the caseload - so coordination of a global response is needed," said Kauck.
The need for coordination
Some of the debates on rethinking policy are old, said Fred Mousseau, a policy advisor to Oxfam. "But the policy document has taken a broader look at humanitarian aid interventions, with emphasis on disaster prevention and mitigation, the role of relief and development. It has, for the first time, forced the global aid community to rethink our role strategically."
The authors of the document said that "While there has been much lip service given to both social protection and disaster risk reduction as categories of programmes, they are still new categories - risk prevention does not show up in official ODA accounting until 2005, and then only in miniscule amount. Social protection isn't accounted as a sector or programmatic category".
They cautioned that a lack of effective leadership and collaboration among so-called food agencies and their collaborating financial institutions has been posited as leaving a power vacuum that "will be filled by multinational agribusiness and the new philanthro-capitalists."
Maxwell told IRIN that the intention was not to advocate a top-down approach envisioning a "global bureaucracy", but the emphasis was rather on better collaboration between agencies.