About 20 million people face starvation in four countries: Yemen, Somalia, South Sudan, and Nigeria, the United Nations says. Armed conflict, combined with drought and natural resource degradation have led to the breakdown of resilience in the food system in these areas.
While the United Nations struggles to raise the $4.4 billion necessary to address the humanitarian crisis, it is imperative for the development community to reevaluate best practices and lessons learned from previous crises to avert future famine.
Unless war is stopped and peacebuilding begins, there is no hope for long-term development for these countries; in the meantime, however, there are ways to help the affected populations cope with the current crisis by improving food systems.
Actions to strengthen resilience in food systems as part of relief measures can provide critical access to food and prevent stressed areas from becoming vulnerable to famine in the future.
Resilience in the food system is simply the capacity to bounce back from manmade or natural shocks like armed conflict and drought. This resilience must be built before a country moves toward long-term development.
In famine-affected countries, food systems resilience was already low; correspondingly, malnutrition, hunger and poverty levels were already high. While the political economies of each country are different, these conditions left them particularly vulnerable to famine.
During times of conflict, building robust food systems can improve access to food from local sources when external aid may be difficult to deliver due to fighting, as warring parties sometimes disrupt transports.
The ability to produce local foods and especially drought resistant foods, even in limited quantities, can therefore have a significant and positive effect on the food security and the food markets.
Building flexibility and adaptive ability against natural disasters like drought can similarly provide relief from harsh conditions.
Droughts that induce the displacement of people often result in large scale land desiccation and degradation, further inhibiting production of and access to food. Food systems that can support communities suffering through droughts can help maintain healthy ecosystems capable of bouncing back from weather stress.
Famine-prone countries such as Ethiopia and Bangladesh have shown that resilient food systems can thwart drought-induced famines over the last 25 years.
Figure 1 below shows a schematic depiction of three states: before, during, and after war. As the diagram illustrates, building resilience requires continuous engagement with communities left behind.
Specific interventions can help provide relief on the one hand and build their capacity on the other to deal with daily challenges of living in areas stressed by conflict or natural resource disasters. Such capacity can over time result in the communities’ ability to quickly move back and forth between relief and development mode.
Building resilience also entails creating local community based institutions and networks that can transform relief assistance into development.
At the national levels, systems that forewarn impending disasters need to be strengthened alongside individual capacities for analyzing context-specific humanitarian assistance and cost effective interventions that governments and development partners could support.
There are signs that multilateral support may be increasing for interventions that rethink their response paradigm from “relief and development” to “relief to resilient food systems.” The next steps of interventions call for a paradigm shift that sows the seeds for a more durable development process.
Suresh Babu is a senior research fellow and head of capacity strengthening at the International Food Policy Research Institute.
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