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Conference on Hunger and Poverty - Discussion Paper 4 (September 1995)

Investing in the Poor to Prevent Emergencies

....the longer-term prevention of famine through development that guarantees sustainable livelihood protection (including drought-resilient farming patterns), reasonable buffers against destitution, and strong community-based coping mechanisms....


1. Emergency aid is an international response to instances of concentrated, acute hunger. There is no time to lose in such situations. Hungry children die or may suffer permanent mental and physical damage; they become disadvantaged adults, the victims of future emergencies. Emergency interventions to feed today's hungry children cannot be deferred to tomorrow.

2. However, relief activities are not the solution to hunger. The only sure way to eradicate hunger is to ensure developmental investments among the poor. Even the best emergency response (well designed, fully funded, and appropriately implemented), treats the symptom rather than the cause, unless it is carefully linked to more than short-term objectives. Hunger is a development issue, not a humanitarian concern. The conceptual wall between relief and development must be breached.

3. On the one hand, hunger goes beyond the problem of food availability. It relates to income-earning, market accessibility, and the social structures that affect the entitlements of the poor. Starvation can, and does, occur when food is still in the market -- times of plenty do not rule out famine 1/. Most humanitarian crises should be seen as human in origin. Responsibility for their occurrence cannot be evaded by those who in most cases, could have prevented these crises through appropriate, early intervention. This includes local community leaders, civil society, and the national governments most involved, as well as international donor agencies.

4. On the other hand, development investments cannot be sustained in the context of major emergencies, whose costs (triggered either by natural agency or by human conflict) are enormous however they are measured. First, the volume and relative share of resources used in humanitarian assistance, in peace-keeping, and in economic and social rehabilitation is increasing dramatically just as ODA flows are declining. Second, the human, productivity, and opportunity costs of humanitarian emergencies to the people and to the governments most involved are overwhelming. Finally, past gains in development are being eroded or destroyed by large-scale emergencies.

5. A concerted effort is needed to address acute hunger as a mainstream development problem. Only then will it be possible to attack the root causes of hunger, and from there, poverty. This calls for a partnership not only to tackle existing acute hunger, but to prevent future humanitarian crises.

The Scale and Nature of Emergencies

6. Hunger concerns not only food, but rather the inability of poor people to gain access to sufficient quantities. While the international community has become increasingly effective in its handling of emergencies, this has not led to a decline in the scale of the problem. On the contrary, the need for emergency aid continues to grow and to outweigh the supply of assistance from all sources.

7. The number of people affected during humanitarian disasters has grown sharply in recent years. In the mid-eighties, fewer than 50 million were in need of assistance in the context of shorter-term emergencies 2/. By 1994, the number of people living in countries that faced severe food shortages was an estimated 272 million 3/. The latter figure includes an increasingly large category of refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs). Since the mid-seventies, the number of refugees has doubled approximately every 6 years, reaching a total of roughly 20 million in 1995 4/. In addition, the number of IDPs reached an estimated 30 million in 1995 5/.

8. As a result of the increasing numbers of people involved in emergencies, the share of international resources dedicated to meeting humanitarian objectives has been rising precipitously, sometimes at the expense of resources previously allocated to longer-term development goals. For example, cash disbursements in favour of humanitarian interventions from OECD countries (excluding food aid) expanded from USD 809 million in 1989 to USD 3.2 billion in 1993 6/. Over the same five-year period, total food aid (both cereal and non-cereal) allocated to emergency operations rose from 2.4 million to 4.5 million metric tons 7/.

9. Part of the explanation for recent growth in demand for assistance and its cost is that the nature of many emergencies has been changing, from largely drought-based to conflict-driven, along with their scale -- from single-country to larger regional crises.

10. Many governments, international agencies, and non-governmental organizations have responded to this growing problem of humanitarian need by placing greater emphasis on goals of food security linked to broad-based economic growth. Progress has been made in a number of countries, but attention to the fundamentals is still lacking. More focus is needed on better ways of alleviating immediate hunger among the poor, and on preventing poverty from evolving into acute hunger and famine.

Preventing Humanitarian Crises

11. "The hungry" is a concept to be qualified: it comprises hungry farmers, labourers, lactating women, herders, and children of the unemployed. There are specific reasons for their hunger, reasons to be taken into account in moving beyond short-term emergency interventions. If it is understood that hunger is a multi-faceted problem (not just one of food), then the solutions are more complex than the shipment of sufficient food from one country to another. Relief assistance alone cannot not strengthen the capacity of poor people to cope with the next emergency. If the most vulnerable people do not gain access to the long-term entitlements and capacities that permit them to avoid hunger the need for relief aid will not decrease. Longer-term and better targeted relief assistance is an important, but short-term, means of access. The links between a lack of development and the causes and effects of humanitarian emergencies are strong 8/.

12. Actions are required on multiple fronts to cement the links between relief and development, and between the hungry individual and the well-fed international community. At the forefront of such actions is the need to put adequate resources into crisis prevention rather than cure. This will rest on the removal of food insecurity and personal insecurity among vulnerable households. This must be a central pillar of development. The failure of governments, donors, and civil society to allocate appropriate resources towards sustainable poverty alleviation is largely to blame for the continued resurgence of humanitarian crises.

13. Appropriate actions, including those to be taken by vulnerable households themselves, require much time and money. As manifestations of collective failure, humanitarian emergencies have complex origins that require complex answers. The search for universal solutions to hunger is inappropriate. There is no easy or inexpensive solution.

14. The problems have been described. There are accepted principles and increasing knowledge of the basic steps required to prevent crises from becoming unmanageable. The first principle is participatory and effective governance. This does not infer a particular political dogma or procedure. Rather it implies: 1) an efficient use, that is accountable, of resources at all levels of government; 2) an allocation of resources in a transparently non-discriminatory fashion in regional and ethnic terms (which would address many concerns that lead to civil conflict); 3) participatory planning and control of resources at a decentralized, local level; and 4) the maintenance of a policy and economic growth environment that encourages participation in development by all of civil society, including the very poor.

15. It should be underlined that effective participatory governance would probably facilitate an expansion of the many activities already undertaken by civil society in support of the poor. For example, most organized religions and many more secular bodies pursue activities of a charitable nature, not only during crises but aimed at longer-term development. The work of Mekane Yesus Orthodox Church in Ethiopia during and after the famines of the eighties is one example and the rural development work of the Aga Khan foundation in poor areas of northern Pakistan is another.

16. The second requirement is sustained equitable economic growth. In most developing countries there is little question that policies for enhancing economic growth, particularly in stable agricultural productivity, must provide the bedrock for future development. Smallholder agricultural development addresses hunger not only through its potential to increase production, but also by increasing rural employment opportunities and therefore income. The adoption of improved technology is one of the keys to long-term crisis prevention, particularly drought. However, technology choices must be such that they diminish risk and ensure gainful employment.

17. Improved seed, fertilizer, plough and irrigation machinery, storage, communications technology, and pesticides can only benefit the poor directly if they are available at affordable prices (assessment of the impact of an ongoing globalization of product and factor markets is relevant in this regard), and if natural resource and other tenure policies permit them to gain from returns to investment in their own productivity. Similarly, education and training systems must be adequately resourced and equitably distributed if enhanced technologies are to play a role in assisting the poor. More attention must be given to collaborating with poor smallholders and herders (including pastoralists) to improve on-farm operations, management of common property resources, the engagement of the poor in non-farm activities, and ensuring a rational development of rural systems of communications, stockholding, and trade. Risk, particularly of environmental and/or economic shocks, is a fact of life for the poor, and such risk needs to be squarely addressed in the design of all policy and project interventions that affect them. Disaster prevention/mitigation needs to be taken explicitly into account in the design of projects aimed at longer-term development.

18. The third basis for preventing crises is investment in the human capital of the poor. Most agricultural investment pays only low dividends in the arid and semi-arid regions of the world in which many of the poor are located. In Sub-Saharan Africa it has been estimated that as much as 57 percent of the rural poor are found in such regions 9/. While defensive production and storage strategies should be elaborated in consultation with grassroots organizations in these areas (helping the poor do better what they already do well), there may be relatively higher social returns to investment in the poor themselves rather than in their environment. Human capital investment can yield important benefits in support of a more sustainable overall development process, including reduced population pressure on fragile resources due to fertility rate decline.

19. The fourth requirement is good preparedness against emergencies. While investment in growth is essential, there is no simple market-based solution waiting to be tapped by the tens of millions of most vulnerable households. The numerous political, climatic, and military upheavals affecting many developing countries during the eighties have contributed to a widespread depletion of household assets and savings, declining labour productivity linked to the erosion of natural and human resources, and a continued reluctance among farmers to invest in land productivity enhancement. As a result, vulnerable households are unable to respond to improved market incentives in the short term.

20. There are two main reasons for this. First, they do not have the resources (or credit) to grow more food even if they wanted to sell a surplus on the market. Oxen, seeds, hired labour, tools, sacks and carts all require capital which remains in short supply in rural areas. Second, transport and the marketing infrastructure required for the smooth flow of food, capital, and labour around the country are still absent. The costs of rapidly increasing food production are rising almost as fast as the heralded benefits. Consequently, even with growth apparent in the overall economy the chronically poor will remain vulnerable to climatic or economic shocks for many years to come.

21. Good preparedness has three principal components. First, the capability to record and detect possible emergencies and alert appropriate institutions of the danger. Second, the proactive design of explicit targeting strategies to cover population groups most at risk. Third, the development of local institutional capacity to organize effective responses to crisis alerts, supported where necessary by external resources.

22. On the part of national government, the three functions may be best formalized through legislation that clearly defines specific areas of central and local government responsibility. Such legislation needs to support a strong political, financial, and technical empowerment of local government structures. Many countries need to invest more in the collection and analysis of information at local levels, in many cases through NGOs and other local institutions. The circulation of timely and accurate information about problems prevents reluctant governments from ignoring such problems.

23. A further development needed in early warning is its link to early response. Improvements in early warning have limited value if they are not unequivocally tied to timely response that is based on previously prepared technical and economic appraisals of potential interventions. Inter-ministerial coordination that defines lines of responsibility and funding before a crisis has been reached is essential.

24. For example, Ethiopia recently approved a National Disaster Prevention and Mitigation Strategy which establishes structured guidelines for institutional collaboration and interaction aimed at more effective famine mitigation. Zimbabwe established an inter-ministerial Drought Task Force during the eighties, already in place when drought struck in the early nineties. The Botswana Government's ability to respond quickly to droughts is due to good bottom-up communication between local Rural Development Councils and relevant ministries. However weak at the outset, such institutions are focal points for coordinated early warning of, and government responses to, famine. Countries without such institutional coordination fall prey to ad hoc responses that cannot maximize the potential of scarce resources for emergency intervention.

25. Much has been learned during the eighties and early nineties about the needs of affected households and how to reach them more quickly. The stabilization of food entitlements for poor households in crisis-prone areas remains a top intervention priority. However, evidence suggests that food resources alone have a limited impact, even for crisis mitigation. Improved crisis prevention and response, aimed at minimizing human and capital asset loss, need to be based on the following:

i) A combination of food and non-food resources that reduces income and productivity constraints while dealing with the primary need of hunger alleviation. There are many ways of delivering resources to those who need them. The most appropriate mechanisms for rapid support of the needy in varying geographical contexts (without exacerbating existing tensions or conflict) should be prepared well in advance of the next emergency, not in response to it;

ii) Participatory planning of interventions is essential, aimed at improved targeting and communication between managers and relief beneficiaries and a strengthening of community-based coping mechanisms. Many indigenous strategies that have evolved over time to help households and communities cope with disasters come under pressure as a result of ongoing processes of social, political, environmental, and economic change. Means should be sought to strengthen community-based mechanisms for averting or coping with emergencies. Many grassroots organizations are already active in this field and could themselves be supported in their efforts;

iii) Decentralized supervision of intervention activities is also required. The potential for expanding past grassroots relief activities of local non-governmental organizations should be explored with a view to improved participatory planning and targeting. At community level, guidelines or structures for identifying the most needy can be of great help in more efficient and equitable targeting of both development and relief resources. Local and international non-governmental organizations often play a constructive mediating role in such community initiatives. For example, relatively efficient community-level screening of recipients served to ensure that few people succumbed to starvation in Zimbabwe during the 1991/92 drought. Similarly, Ethiopia's example in establishing a broad, community-focused Employment-Based Safety Net (drawing on experiences of the Maharashtra Employment Guarantee Scheme), has been commended.

iv) Stability. Political stability, economic stability, and community-based preventive development that embraces the poor are mutually reinforcing; they must be nurtured simultaneously. Prevention requires initiatives that support not only sustainable economic growth, but stable, non-discriminatory governance, participation of the poor in all aspects of the development process, and, importantly, effective conflict resolution and prevention--the root causes of humanitarian crises will not be resolved by project interventions alone. In this era of conflict proliferation, the creation and strengthening of more creative and effective mechanisms for the peaceful resolution of conflicts is crucial, at national as well as international levels. To this end, the roles of civil society and public organizations in conflict warning and prevention need to be better specified.


26. Ultimate responsibility for growing out of poverty and hunger lies with communities and households themselves. However, the role of the Public Sector remains crucial. Governments of Developing Countries, donors, and civil society share responsibility for investing against the threat of future emergencies. This requires an integration of activities that strengthen crisis prevention wherever possible. International assistance, including project interventions, should ensure that improved household food security is a high priority on any list of goals. This would demand: a) an increase in ODA flows to poorest regions and poorest people; b) a renewed focus on human capital development, particularly among women (major food producers, most numerous victims of civil conflict, and the key players in planned population growth); and c) initiatives to strengthen disaster preparedness through vulnerability mapping, early warning systems, and local institutional development. These initiatives would allow for better identification of populations and areas most at risk, leading to improved preinvestment in conflict and disaster prevention, and better planning for appropriate responses to food crises among vulnerable populations.

27. Emergency assistance resources, even if they continue to grow, will not on their own be able to adequately treat, let alone remedy, the scale of humanitarian needs likely in coming years, and humanitarian problems will not be suitably addressed with financial resources alone. While structural food deficits, weak market infrastructure, inappropriate economic and social policies, and armed conflict continue to cripple or delay growth in many countries there will be a call for emergency humanitarian interventions.

28. However, humanitarian interventions of the future should not just be "more of the same". New strategic policies and interventions are needed to address future hunger in its many manifestations. There will be a continued need to bring adequate food directly to the mouths of hungry individuals. Such actions need to be better supported by initiatives that effectively channel both food and non-food resources to the very poor before and after crises in order to lay the groundwork for equitable economic growth in which the poorest people and resource-constrained regions can participate. Coordinated efforts will be needed to bring greater technical skills and financial resources to play in combination with food so that the positive impact of each can be maximized. The world's major donor nations must make the alleviation of mass hunger, in times of peace as well as in times of crisis, an explicit and urgent priority. Only then will hunger be effectively confronted, liberating resources provided for emergencies and using them for development purposes.

1 / Sen, Amartya. 1981. Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation. Oxford; Clarendon Press.

2 / IFRCRCS (International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies). 1995. World Disasters Report 1995. Geneva.

3 / FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations). 1994. Foodcrops and Food Shortages. Various issues. Rome; FAO.

Uvin, P. The State of World Hunger., in Messer E. and Uvin P. The Hunger Report 1995. New York; Gordon & Breach, 1995.

Uvin notes that these figures do not mean that all people in these countries suffered from famine, but only that they lived in countries affected by exceptional food shortage, where, if no special measures are taken by governments and international aid agencies, famine can and does occur. The number of people actually starving in these countries was certainly much lower.

4 / ACC/SCN (United Nations Administrative Committee on Coordination--Sub-Committee on Nutrition). 1994. Update on the World Nutrition Situation, 1994. Geneva; ACC/SCN/IFPRI.; USCR (United States Committee for Refugees). 1995. World Refugee Survey 1995. Washington, D.C.: USCR.

5 / UNSG (United Nations Secretary-General). 1995. Supplement to an Agenda for Peace: Position Paper of the Secretary-General on the Occasion of the Fiftieth Anniversary of the United Nations. Document A/50/60/S/1995/1. Presented to the Fiftieth Session of the General Assembly. New York.

6 / IFRCRCS (International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies). 1995. World Disasters Report 1995. Geneva.

7 / WFP (World Food Programme). 1995. The Food Aid Monitor: World Food Aid Flows. (INTERFAIS). June 1995. Rome; WFP.

8 / Webb, Patrick and Joachim von Braun, 1994. Famine and Food Security in Ethiopia: Lessons for Africa. London: John Wiley.

9 / Broca, Sumiter and Peter Oram. 1991. Study on the location of the poor. Washington, D.C.: International Food Policy Research Institute. Mimeo.

Discussion Paper 1: Empowerment of the poor
Discussion Paper 2: Enhancing technology generation and diffusion
Discussion Paper 3: Combating environmental degradation
Discussion Paper 4: Preventing disaster and reducing its impact on the poor
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