Re: Addressing food insecurity in protracted crises: adequate and appropriate funding mechanisms

Dan Maxwell Convener of the discussion, United States of America

We’d like to thank all our contributors to the Community of Practice e-discussion on “Addressing food insecurity in protracted crises: adequate and appropriate funding mechanisms.”  The discussion didn’t attract as much comment as we had hoped, but we do thank those who contributed. One of the final contributions from Walter Mwasaa made several good additional points: about joint planning cells and crisis modifiers that build a more joined up approach to working in protracted crises; about mathematical modeling and the improved ability to predict when crises will hit, which makes better mitigation both possible and imperative; and about resilience, and the ways that the public, private and civil society sectors have to work together to make investments in crisis-affected contexts work. Other recent contributions noted resource constraints faced, especially by local government and local authorities, and made the plea for better resource allocation and better joined up work. The issues of accountability and the ability to cope with additional aid flows, especially where legitimate funding financing channels may be problematic, were also highlighted. The example of the Protracted Relief Programme in Zimbabwe provided some useful insights: providing a flexible and responsive alternative to more ‘standard’ relief programs; and the value of pooled funding mechanisms to facilitate collaboration (and better programming) through learning and evidence sharing.

However, even as this discussion was going on, a report was issued by OCHA that reconfirms what most of us already know: money spent on the kinds of investments we have been discussing here—particularly on the prevention and mitigation crises, most of which applies to protracted crisis contexts—continues to be a very small drop in the bucket of humanitarian assistance or development aid up through and including 2011.  Funding for post disaster recovery has fared only slightly better.  These two trends should be an on-going source of worry for anyone concerned about protracted crises—and the people caught in them.  The very same OCHA report makes it clear that not only has information about crises improved, many new means of accessing information—and of crisis affected people being able to demand attention—have become available through social media, cell phone networks, and other means.  But to date these new sources of information, or of making demands heard, remain fundamentally attached to a fairly traditional model of crisis-response.  The experience of working in—or living through (!)—protracted crises in recent decades affirms the importance of this kind of response, but also makes it clear that classic humanitarian response alone is not sufficient.  We knew this long before the forum was launched.

The contributions here make it clear that practitioners have good ideas about what to do, and there are potentials for joined up efforts between humanitarian and development practitioners, local authorities, the private sector and disaster-affected or at-risk communities.  But given that this kind of an investment is mainly a public good and therefore has to financed by the public sector, the missing element has been the (political) commitment by the public sector to make these kinds of investments.  The observation that we had no contributions to the forum from anyone responsible for allocating this kind of resource isn’t encouraging.

But it is not the staff of donor agencies where the problem lies.  After all, many of the ideas we have discussed here come from donor agencies (and to be fair, there have been times in recent years where donors were ahead of the practitioner community).  The problem is deeper:  as the discussion on the forum has progressed, there has been another discussion going on in Washington DC about reforming US food aid (long the predominant kind of assistance sent to both acute food security emergencies and chronically at-risk contexts). The Obama administration has proposed reforms to cut back on in-kind food aid and make more flexible cash resources available—either for direct transfers or to purchase food in recipient countries.  The Bush administration proposed similar reforms in 2005 and in the deliberation over a new “Farm Bill” in 2008 (US food aid has long been mandated by agricultural legislation, not foreign assistance legislation—switching it to the foreign assistance budget is another part of the reforms on the table).  Yet even though the reforms demonstrably, (i)  save money, (ii) improve both the quality and quantity of assistance, (iii) shorten the time it takes to respond to crises, and (iv) have strong bipartisan support (it is one of the few changes in US policy in recent years proposed by both the Obama administration and the Bush administration), opposition to the reforms on Capitol Hill remains strong.  This is mainly because of powerful, single-interest lobby groups that care only about their slice of the pie, regardless of the public good—and their ability to sway the votes of democratically elected representatives.

I don’t say any of this to suggest that the answer to the issue of addressing protracted crises is going to be resolved by US food aid reform (although it would be one important step in the right direction).  I say it because many times, the way in which policy decisions (and especially resource-allocation decisions) are made reflect almost nothing about what is known and proposed by practitioners in the field, or by the staff of donor agencies whose actions reflect higher level political decisions.  If we have a relative consensus among practitioners about the right way to respond and the right kinds of investments to make in protracted crises, perhaps we need to invest more time and effort in influencing the politics of the decision-making processes that would actually make available more flexible resources, in something like the relative amounts required, in addressing the set of issues faced by populations in protracted crises.

Perhaps our next online consultation on protracted crises should be about the politics of engagement!