Early action plus investment can save billions of dollars in food assistance

A new report could change the way humanitarian practitioners, national authorities and policy makers think about food crises

There are currently some 815 million chronically hungry people in the world — that’s about 1 in 11 of the global population. This number, based on data collected last year, is all the more shocking because it represents an increase on the number of undernourished people in the world the previous year.

Internally displaced women and children at Kabasa camp in Dolow, Somalia. WFP/Georgina Goodwin

This is a time of widespread food crises in the world — Yemen, Syria, South Sudan, the list goes on. And this is the context in which we at the World Food Programme embarked on our 2018 World Food Assistance (WoFA) report. This looks not just at the cause of food crises but also at what determines their scale and how they might be contained or even prevented.

In the first WoFA report which came out last year, we tried to build an understanding of the nature of the food assistance sector. It was at this point it became clear we could take our analysis a step further and really engage with the patterns that emerge around food assistance expenditure.

Using a wide range of data from public sources and from WFP operations during the period 2009–2016, we looked at food crises through the lens of food assistance. As we know, food assistance is more than just a handout of aid. It saves people’s lives and protects their livelihoods in the short run. In the long run, it helps combat the root causes of hunger. In that sense, it can be viewed as an accurate reflection and indication of food crisis in a country or region.

Raiyazu cleans rice in Balukhali Makeshift, Bangladesh. She fled violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine State and now benefits from WFP food assistance. WFP/Saikat Majumdar

We are becoming increasingly aware of the factors that drive food crises, principal among them conflict — indeed some 60 percent of all the chronically hungry people in the world live in conflict-affected countries. And increasingly, extreme weather events related to climate change are undermining the food security of vulnerable people.

But what is less understood and what emerges so clearly from this report is the huge saving to be made from preventative action. As international donors grapple with the huge cost of mounting increasingly expensive humanitarian operations in multiple war zones and areas of unrest, it is worth considering the true value of peace. A one-point increase in the World Bank’s Index of Political Stability and Absence of Violence, finds the report, could halve annual food assistance costs, leading to a saving of nearly US$3 billion (based on 2016 data).

Hoda lives in Zaatari refugee camp with her father. She is one of 500,000 Syrians benefiting from WFP’s e-voucher programme in Jordan. WFP/Giulio d’Adamo

If Syria’s rating on the World Bank Index were to become more stable by one point, WFP would save US$300 million per year. A one-point increase in stability in Yemen, would mean a US$205 million reduction in WFP’s food assistance bill per year.

That such a small improvement in this indicator can have such a big impact on our food assistance expenditure and thereby on the risk of food crisis was one of the really surprising factors for us.

The impact of conflict and sudden shocks on food security, however, amounts to only part of the story. Equally important in driving food crisis are longer-term factors such as chronic hunger and malnutrition, badly functioning food systems, poor infrastructure, and flawed political, social and economic structures.

Chronic hunger significantly raises the likelihood of the sharp spike in hunger and food insecurity that signals the outbreak of a food crisis. Helping people meet their food and nutrition needs makes them significantly better able to withstand shocks.

A government may not be able to stop a drought or a flood but it can take care of the population so people are better able to cope — and it does this by investing in the economy, in the social fabric, and in political institutions, also in roads and education. In a country where education is higher and roads are better, the scale of a food crisis will be smaller.

This trader in Libenge in the Democratic Republic of the Congo has benefited from the WFP cash-transfer programme, which enables beneficiaries to buy food from local suppliers. WFP/Olivier Le Blanc

We discovered that, for every one per cent of a population shielded from the effects of natural disasters, food assistance costs are reduced by two percent, with potential savings to WFP of US$115 million per year. Early action and rapid response also help reduce population displacement — a one per cent reduction in the amount of people displaced means a massive 16 per cent saving in food assistance costs with potential savings to WFP of US$841 million per year.

One thing we set out to do was to have a report that points to action and gives hope that something can be done about food crises.

I believe that the 2018 World of Food Assistance report does that, putting concrete numbers behind the argument that there is a cost to investment but it is as nothing to the cost of inaction, both in terms of lives and livelihoods lost or ruined. This is true for all countries, no matter their level of wealth and development. Preventing food crises is everyone’s business, and it is good business as well.

Read the report here.

Steven Were Omamo is the Deputy Director and Food Systems Coordinator in the Policy and Programme Division at the United Nations World Food Programme

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Insight by The World Food Programme

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Steven Were Omamo

Steven Were Omamo

Writer. Agricultural economist. Food policy analyst and practitioner @WFP. Dreaming of a #ZeroHunger world. #ManUtd fan. Tweets are mine.

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