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How to handle the food price crisis

High food prices and drought have pushed over five million Afghans into high risk food insecurity.
(Abdullah Shaheen/IRIN)

Food price inflation has sparked a debate between aid agencies who want to return to food transfers rather than providing cash transfers, and those in favour of index-linking the cash payments to the price of food, says a new paper that provides tools and ideas on how to deal with the food price crisis.

John Mitchell, chair of the Active Learning Network for Accountability and Performance in Humanitarian Action (ALNAP), a UK-based network of humanitarian actors that prepared the document, said: "The paper was in response to a call by our members [including UN and other major aid agencies] to help them understand the impact of the high food price crisis on their programmes and how to respond to it."

The debate on food vs cash transfers is among several issues that the paper, The Global Food Price Crisis: Lessons and Ideas for Relief Planners and Managers, examines.

There are several papers on the food price crisis in circulation, but the ALNAP document is more of a "how to" manual for humanitarian players on the food price crisis. "We found that there was tremendous need for analysis to be able to plan responses," said Mitchell.

Ben Ramalingam, ALNAP's head of research and development and along with Mitchell and Karen Proudlock, one of the authors of the paper, commented: "However, analysis alone is not sufficient. It is also important to anticipate how the situation might change over time, and to build in contingency measures to ensure that a programme can be adapted in response. Besides, the crisis has developed, or can develop, into several localised crises – how do agencies respond to that?"

More than analysis

ALNAP conducted a survey among humanitarian agencies, which identified nine questions as critical, and which formed the basis of the newly published tool manual focusing on analysis and planning.

''It is also important to anticipate how the situation might change over time, and to build in contingency measures to ensure that a programme can be adapted in response''

The first three questions, on the need for a scrutiny of information on livelihoods, vulnerability and markets, form the section on analysis, with suggestions on the kind of analytical tools to be used.

Livelihoods: the most effective way of saving lives is by protecting the means by which people get their food, the authors reasoned. The analysis takes into account micro-level information on household assets, coping strategies and spending priorities, as well as macro-level policies, institutions and processes that affect livelihoods nationally and internationally.

The second feature of the analysis presented in the paper is that it also focuses on the needs and priorities identified by the affected populations themselves.

Vulnerability: the complex characteristics of the situation in which the affected people find themselves, including their nutritional status, resilience, safety, and their right to express their needs.

In the context of rising food prices, the ALNAP paper suggests examining the specific vulnerabilities of four key groups: agricultural, agro-pastoralist, pastoralist and urban poor households.

Market conditions: Most livelihoods in poor countries depend on markets, and the paper proposes an assessment of the markets relevant to food price rises

- to find a "fast, cost-effective and empowering way" to respond to people's priority needs, especially in terms of cash-based responses
- to avoid inappropriate relief responses that could damage existing market systems
- to examine how local markets responded to interventions, which could indicate whether they were effective or not
- to get a sense of market recovery, which would be necessary for rehabilitation
- to identify any crises in market systems that could be turned into opportunities for "building back better".

ALNAP's Ramalingam noted that after analysing the existing situation, it was important to apply the conclusions in possible future scenarios.

Opinion was still divided over whether the current high food prices would be short-lived, or the world might be "facing a 'new era' of higher and rising food prices", said the paper.

Scenarios helped agencies with contingency planning and responding to crises on time, and could be undertaken on a qualitative or quantitative basis; the paper suggested four approaches:

- Best, Middle, Worst scenarios, based on the scale of price increases
- Augmentation of scenarios, or variation in scenarios if the numbers of affected people increased
- Using a timeline that defined conditions at set points in time
- Reviewing operational resources, so that the types of responses required under differing circumstances are taken into account, rather than focusing on impact.

The analyses and scenarios should be combined with strategies to help governments, donors and aid agencies plan their response at the onset of a crisis related to food prices.

The paper also addresses the need for coordination and partnerships across organisations, looked at ideas for short-term actions to boost food production, examined the debate between cash and food aid, and compared various social protection approaches.

UN and government officials, aid agencies and representatives of international agencies from the High-Level Task Force on the Global Food Security Crisis will meet in the Spanish capital, Madrid, on 26 January 2009 for a two-day meeting on the crisis. The meeting is a follow-up to the Food Summit held in Rome in 2008.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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