Getting Serious About Food Security

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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.

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.

While one could characterize most donor programs as partnerships between the donor and host country, it has become essential to look beyond this traditional dyad toward ways to leverage other funding sources. Generally speaking, the private sector is best suited to create economic growth. Functioning food systems are, of course, ultimately built and operated by business. Therefore, a key part of a donors' role in ensuring food security should be helping to create a friendly and stable investment climate. In the context of food security, donors need to bring in both the private sector and civil society to determine where investment can have the most catalytic effect. Once this is determined (for example, in Tanzania a study found that investments in food processing have a higher multiplier effect than those in any other sector), donors and businesses must come to an agreement about the right balance of resources and roles to make investments scalable and sustainable.

While partnerships with the private sector and coordination amongst donors are not new concepts, they have become increasingly important given today's political and economic realities. To be successful, donors need to find better ways to coordinate and leverage existing sources of funding at all levels. Country-led plans such as the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Program (CAADP) and the Feed the Future Initiative represent a good first step toward this approach. Coordinating directly with a country on its own priorities, as in CAADP, and having a clear set of goals and mechanisms, as outlined in the Feed the Future Initiative, create a transparent platform for high-level donor dialogues. The United States and European Union have gone so far as to identify priority countries that will be the focus of increased efforts at coordination. However, while much of this work has begun at the highest levels, these are two programs where change will require a renewed focus on ground-level action and partnerships.

There are many instances where ground-level focus has yielded real development results. Much of the work left to be done lies in identifying, scaling, and duplicating the successes that have already been achieved while getting past those projects that have failed to achieve real results. It is all too apparent that some partnerships exist more on paper than in reality, and in a time of increased constraints, donors should not shy away from distinguishing success from failure and concentrating resources. Successful partnerships with host countries, civil society, and business need to be recognized and repeated; those that have not been successful need to be honestly acknowledged and left behind.

The German Marshall Fund is supporting a Transatlantic Experts Group to examine successful and failed food security partnerships in east Africa, with the goal of transmitting best practices and policy recommendations to transatlantic and African policymakers and other stakeholders in early 2012. The group will look beyond high-level commitments to partnerships in practice on the ground, and will work to provide an honest view of what works and what doesn't.

Even aggressive action to increase coordination and focus on successful partnership models will not relieve the current crisis in the Horn of Africa. The current situation calls for intensive and immediate humanitarian relief. However, in order to minimize the likelihood of future famines and food emergencies, much remains to be done in creating the robust, functioning food value chains that so many in the developed world take for granted.


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