Getting Serious About Food Security

By Mark Allegrini & Kate Ritterspach

This summer, the issue of food security in sub-Saharan Africa has been thrown into cruelly sharp focus. The United Nations reports that over 3 million Somalis (almost half the country's population) are in need of food aid, and the U.S. Agency for International Development claims that over 12 million people in the eastern Horn of Africa are in need of immediate food, water or medical assistance. Last month the U.N. declared an official famine in two regions of Somalia, and recent U.S. statistics indicate that nearly 30,000 children under the age of five have already died.

Hunger in Africa is a daily reality for many across the continent, though it rarely makes headlines. The current situation in the Horn of Africa is, to be sure, a particularly dramatic case, with several of its own peculiarities. The current famine was triggered by a severe drought that affected the whole of eastern Africa. Somalia, where the official famine has been declared, is essentially a failed state, and long-standing armed conflict and militant control over some areas of the country exacerbate the effects of the drought and make delivery of essential food aid much more difficult.

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However, some of the food crisis' other contributing factors are more structural, and are not unique to one region or one dry season. Drought, while potentially devastating to farmers around the world, does not automatically produce food shortages or famine. But a basic and crippling problem in many parts of Africa is the lack of reliable, fully functioning food systems. This includes the lack of technology required to protect crops and maximize yields, and, just as crucially, the lack of infrastructure necessary to harvest, store, process, transport, and ship food locally, regionally, and internationally.

Since 2009, major donors have devoted significant attention and funds to agriculture and food security. Encouragingly, there is widespread recognition that real food security requires a holistic, value chain approach. Ultimately, for donors this means a shift away from business as usual, where large sums of money are allocated and spent largely by the donors themselves on isolated projects. The imperative of transatlantic budget austerity has added to the urgency of doing things differently. Donors must leverage the skills and financial resources of other donors, host countries, regional institutions, civil society and businesses. They can no longer go it alone.

Actually implementing this new approach, however, has proven to be a difficult task. While high-level donor dialogues have produced commitments to coordination and a more holistic approach, there remain large gaps on the ground. In many cases, donors' focus on decreasing the number of countries and sectors receiving funds and attention for the sake of efficiency and specialization ("selectivity," in the development vernacular) has not been accompanied by the necessary increase in coordination. In order to achieve development goals in a time of smaller budgets and greater need, a focus on partnerships is a good place to start.

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Mark Allegrini is a Program Officer and Kate Ritterspach a Research Assistant for the German Marshall Fund's Economic Policy Program.

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