By Samrat Singh, Research Associate, Food Policy, Partnership for Child Development, School of Public Health, Imperial College London
As forbidding predictions turn to tragic reality, the first famine since 2011 was declared in South Sudan last month. Almost 5 million people—42 percent of the population—are estimated to be severely food insecure from February to April 2017. This is projected to increase to 5.5 million people, at the height of the 2017 lean season, in July.
South Sudan has just fallen off the hunger classification precipice, and there are parts of Nigeria, Somalia, and Yemen with very high levels of food insecurity and on the brink of famine—20 million people face starvation in these 4 countries. One of the main causes of this food crisis is vicious civil conflict involving militias and governments causing death and displacement in thousands. In most of these regions the overwhelming majority of farming is subsistence farming with negligible capital and food storage capacity. The production and marketing cycle operates under very thin margins, leaving farmers highly vulnerable to shocks. A typical farming household will have only 3 to 5 bags of maize or groundnuts to sell immediately after harvest to the local trader who also provides some credit for the household and farm. Prolonged conflict and insecurity causes a breakdown of this fragile production-marketing cycle and diminishes access to basic inputs such as seeds and fertilizers, leading to a rapid and comprehensive collapse of agriculture. In Somalia, it is reported that three-quarters of the country’s livestock has died and cereal production is down 75 percent. In South Sudan, a country ravaged since its birth by hitherto unseen violence, the conflict has decimated hundreds of farming households in the Yambio region, the bread basket of the country.
This tragedy is compounded by the lack of robust national and regional mechanisms to address food insecurity emergencies. While the support of relief agencies is critical, nationally and regionally led institutionalized responses can be quick, context specific, effective and sustained for longer periods. National emergency food reserve systems have proven to be effective and efficient in deploying resources. A case in point is Ethiopia’s Emergency Food Security Reserve Administration, which has successfully responded to numerous food emergencies since 1990. Similarly, the Strategic Grain Reserves Department in Nigeria was instrumental in providing relief to the region during the floods in 2014. As well as food, these systems can provide basic agriculture inputs which can potentially alleviate a complete disruption of production-market-consumer cycle.
Emergency reserves were usually operated as part of national food reserve or buffer stock agencies. The role of these agencies has been especially contentious because of political interference, mismanagement, leakages, and monopolistic practices. These well-documented maladies gave way to structural adjustment dictate of dismantling buffer stock systems in the late 1980’s. Furthermore, the mandate of these systems included state intervention in prices and procurement which was starkly at odds with the western-led neoliberal prescription for the rest of the world. These institutions failed because of gross mismanagement, poor design, and a conflation of multiple objectives. Instead of supporting constructive reforms or creation of new strategic reserves, the very notion of food reserves irrespective of their nature and purpose became politically toxic.
This deliberate neglect depleted the institutional ability of countries and regions with the highest vulnerability to food crisis to respond to emergencies. This is a collective failure of international funding, research agencies, national governments, and multi-national forums. It is well understood that the epistemology of research and advocacy is driven by its own political economy which is influenced by several different factors. Food reserves have been long out of the sights of influential donors and consequently out of academic fashion barring a brief resurgence post the 2007 food and fuel crisis. In 2011, the G-20 Ministerial Declaration under the French presidency supported the establishment of emergency food reserves but the idea soon lost traction. Other such multi-national strategic reserves which have failed to progress have included a regional reserve for West Africa under the auspices of the regional community bloc, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).
As the world faces the biggest food crisis since 1945, there is a clear and urgent need to develop and support a network of national and regional food and agriculture input reserve systems. Established famine monitoring mechanisms such as FEWSNET can be integrated into the system to trigger appropriate responses. In Africa, such a system can be coordinated under regional trade blocs and finally under the African Union. While leakages and organizational autonomy remain clear challenges, there are several innovative policy and technological tools which can be tested and applied to improve transparency in operations such as procurement, stock rotation, and food safety.
The current food crisis is threatening the lives and livelihoods of tens of thousands of people. While the causes of this crisis are complex and at times seemingly intractable, prompt and preemptive support through strategic food reserves can prevent the precipitous collapse of food security. Hunger deaths are an unforgiving and stark reminder of the gross inequities that plague us well into the 21st century. While international humanitarian relief mechanisms continue to be vital, there is an urgent need to rethink our approach to food crisis management and mitigation.