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New mechanism to boost food security

A girl relaxes on the sacks of maize at the food distribution in Jowhar, Somalia, September 2007. Up to 1.5 million of Somalia's estimated seven million people need food aid. Nearly 300,000 face severe food shortages in the Horn of Africa nation.
A girl rests on the sacks of maize at a WFP food distribution in Jowhar, Somalia. September 2007 (Manoocher Deghati/IRIN)

Since April the humanitarian community has been gearing up to deploy a new mechanism aimed at combining expertise on food aid and agricultural assistance to boost food security and make food insecure communities hit by a disaster more resilient.

A 2010 evaluation of the “cluster approach” conducted by the Global Public Policy Institute (GPPI) and Groupe Urgence, Réhabilitation, Développement (URD) recommended the setting up of a new global food security mechanism or “cluster”, to support disaster-affected food insecure communities.

Its coordinator, Graham Farmer, said the new cluster is led jointly by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Food Programme (WFP).

One of the tools deployed by aid workers in emergency responses to such things as floods, droughts or earthquakes is the “cluster approach”, first implemented in 2005. A “cluster” consists of groupings of UN agencies, NGOs and other international organizations around a sector or service provided during a humanitarian crisis.

The cluster approach currently encompasses 11 clusters or sectors such as logistics, water and sanitation, early recovery and nutrition. Agriculture as a separate cluster will cease to exist under the new scheme.

GPPI’s Julia Steets explained the rationale behind the December 2010 decision to set up the new cluster: “Everybody in the field agrees that one of the greatest challenges [during a humanitarian crisis] is implementing a proper `early recovery’ approach - introducing recovery and development aspects into relief work as early as possible and strengthening transition.”

This is especially true of food assistance, where short-term food interventions, if not managed properly, can undermine long-term ones, she added, creating dependency and slowing recovery.

''This is especially true of food assistance, where short-term food interventions, if not managed properly, can undermine long-term ones, she added, creating dependency and slowing recovery''

The global food security cluster will ensure there are “no missed opportunities” - for example by distributing seeds at the same time as food aid if disaster strikes just before the planting season.

“It could be the implementation of a cash-for-work programme [as an emergency response] which involves repairing agriculture infrastructure such as dams or roads damaged during a crisis to get the community prepared for the next planting cycle,” said Farmer.

The agricultural cluster is normally one of the most under-funded, thus adversely affecting prospects for recovery, said Steets. Bundling agriculture with food aid, “usually by far the best funded”, would help increase support and funding for long-term solutions, she added.

Almost 80 percent of the population in developing countries, which are most susceptible to natural disasters, depend on agriculture for food and income.

Tapping into local knowledge

Generally, the role of global clusters is to strengthen preparedness and build capacity of the aid response, explained Farmer, and “that is what we intend to do”. The national or local level clusters make sure response to a crisis is effective and that all NGOs are on the same page.

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But the most innovative aspect of the new global food security cluster could be that, unlike other clusters, it will choose its priorities according to the needs of existing local and national clusters, said Steets. In doing so it will endorse a bottom-up approach - something the GPPI/URD evaluation called for.

The GPPI/URD evaluation said the exclusion of national and local NGOs - and often the failure to link with, build on, or support existing coordination and response mechanisms - was a major failing of the cluster system.

This was largely because of insufficient analysis of local structures and lack of “clear transition and exit criteria and strategies”, said the evaluation report. “As a result, the introduction of clusters has in several cases weakened national and local ownership and capacities,” it pointed out.


In many countries, the food security clusters "were actually among the best attended and most concrete clusters of all, precisely because they reacted to demand, rather than being imposed from above," said Steets. "Yet, the poor people who managed those clusters were often overwhelmed, because they had no formal time allocated for this task and had no support structure, etc."

Steets said the new global food security cluster “can from the very beginning draw on a local structure and respond to its needs. And this is absolutely the way the global cluster should go: Start by talking to existing local food security [or similar] clusters - both at national and at local level - and find out what kind of support they would need, be it in terms of policy-making, guidance, training, surge capacity, pre-positioning or what have you.

“It would be a real disaster if they missed this opportunity and went ahead creating tools and guidance that could end up being irrelevant to the field.”

Farmer said they did intend to consult. The global food security cluster will be holding its Inception Meeting on 30-31 May.


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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