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Re: What is the role of social relations and networks in household food security and nutrition?

Pamela Pozarny FAO, Italy

This is an important topic and regretfully undervalued to date, in understanding actual socioeconomic dyanamics at community level and how these can promote and foster improved household resilience, food security and nutrition, and overall livelihoods. Social scientists among the range of experts working in rural development-food security sectors have typically appreciated the power and vitality of social relations in rural communities (I am particularly thinking about Africa based on my own experiences), including how they are often (overlooked) determining factors in reaching (and also inhibiting) targeted, envisaged outcomes and impacts of supporting policies/programmes/projects. Building on those positive existing social, usually customary and traditional-based practices to contribute to and reinforce development objectives is advised and we should advocate for greater analysis, understanding and incorporation of these sometimes complex inter-relations into our policy and programme design and implementation work. This analysis is particularly relevant to promoting inclusion and equitable access to resources and assets provided to households/communities, for example through government programmes, as it propvides greater understanding of "how" households actually use, allocate, share or retain benefits.

I wish to provide as one example among others which we are working on in FAO under the from Protection to Production (PtoP) project, which is an impact evaluation using a mixed methods approach to understanding impacts, and economic impacts more specifically, of cash transfer programmes in SSA at the household, community levels, and on social networks in particular. I believe our qualitative findings from analysis of the Ghana Livelihood Empowerment Against Poverty (LEAP) cash transfer demonstrate best the role of social networks in rural communities (italics my own):

"Despite high poverty levels and livelihood insecurity, the fieldwork confirmed a reasonably high level of contribution-based social networking in poor rural areas. These networks were often fragile, however. A lack of trust to pay fees and the necessary dues for these groups was one reason why groups might dissolve and then reform. For the potentially vulnerable in general, and for the LEAP beneficiaries in particular, it was very important to spread risk by trying to maintain links with social networks, with the most important risk-sharing network being the extended family. Beyond its impact on beneficiary self esteem and hope, the LEAP transfer enabled beneficiaries to enter, or ‘re-enter’, existing contribution-based social and socio-economic networks."

And further,

"Crucially, the introduction of LEAP had enabled many beneficiary households to ‘re-enter’ their extended family network, helping them to move from isolation and vulnerability to inclusion and risk sharing. In some instances beneficiaries had even been able to turn provider, loaning to other family members in trouble. In the Fante society of the Central Region, the LEAP transfer enabled beneficiaries to contribute to extended family networks through the ‘family levy’ (abusua to). This contribution is mainly for risk sharing around burial and funeral party costs. This is an ad hoc contribution so the LEAP transfer enabled beneficiaries to keep money aside for this expenditure. One beneficiary in Agona Abrim, Central Region, explained how even before LEAP she would still pay her family levy using family remittances. If you stopped contributing then, ‘if you die you will be buried without a coffin’. The importance of a decent burial in Fante society cannot be overstated: ‘People pay more respect to your coffin than when you are alive’. Extended family members, knowing that the LEAP contribution eases the burden of their support, were now more likely to provide support to beneficiaries. Beneficiaries in Agona Abrim ironically noted this change of position that financial contribution brings: ‘Now when someone dies, they say "come come"!"

As demonstrated, social networks in rural communities in Ghana serve as a safety net in themselves (e.g. food, cash) and an avenue towards increasing inclusion, participation, voice and engaments among all  members of the community, including the most vulnerable. Ghana and other completed studies from countries covered under the project can be found on the PtoP website:

Please find a link to the Ghana research brief and to the full report.