World Food Day: the need to plan ahead
The Horn of Africa, and Somalia in particular, is currently in the grip of a serious food crisis. To coincide with World Food Day on Sunday, 16 October 2011, Agnès Dhur, head of the ICRC Economic Security Unit, talks about the causes and humanitarian consequences of food difficulties. She explains that the ICRC must anticipate when they will arise in order to improve its response.
What are the challenges in Somalia today?
The difficulty is making sure that populations are in a position to produce or buy the food they need. Poor harvests and rising food prices, not to mention the ongoing situation of extreme violence, have restricted access to food supplies. While we are currently distributing food to over one million people in response to this emergency, we are also doing everything in our power to restore production capacity. This is why we have also distributed seed, fertilizer and farming tools to ensure that those who have remained in the worst-affected areas can regain a basic level of self-sufficiency. In 2010, our distributions provided for the seed needs of farmers for a four-month period. The situation is also difficult for those living in urban areas as they are totally dependent on markets for their food and bear the brunt of the price increases. In towns like El Garas, Dhusamareb, Galkayo and Galinsoor in the centre of the country, the ICRC is trying to boost the local economy by helping people to set up income-generating enterprises such as bakeries, mills, oil press-houses and sewing workshops.
What are the consequences of fluctuating food prices?
In the countries where we work, many families devote almost 80% of their budget to buying food. Unpredictable price fluctuations can mean that they suddenly struggle to feed themselves. There is a combination of factors at work here, such as biofuel production, poor harvests, competition for environmental resources, and increased speculation on – and demand for – food supplies. Families and public services in many of these countries have no control over these and are unable to predict price fluctuations. Prison authorities, for example, find it very difficult to draw up a food budget for detainees that takes account of such factors. In these situations, the ICRC helps to feed the detainees by supporting the authorities' efforts to produce food, such as in Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
What does the ICRC do to ensure food security for those affected by conflict elsewhere in the world?
Our main approach is to support farming and income-generating initiatives. When prices rise or fluctuate, people are often forced to change their basic eating habits to cut costs. We have seen this happen in Central Africa, where people living in towns and cities have had to replace their usual staple, rice or corn, with the cheaper cassava. But cassava mosaic virus disease is wreaking havoc across the region, including in the Central African Republic and South Sudan. It is so pervasive that it can wipe out up to 80% of the harvest. The only way to overcome this problem is by distributing mosaic-resistant cassava cuttings. The ICRC has initiated a propagation programme to this effect, reaching even farmers beyond the borders of the disease-affected countries. It is a delicate operation, because once the cuttings have been taken, they need to be replanted as quickly as possible. Thanks to this programme, crop farmers are now able to grow cassava in areas where production had almost completely ceased. In this way, many communities – whether cut off by conflict or faced with a mass influx of displaced people or refugees – are regaining their full capacity to produce this staple crop.
In urban areas, or where farming programmes are not appropriate, the ICRC focuses on micro-economic projects that enable vulnerable families to increase and diversify their sources of income. In Kyrgyzstan, last year's outbreak of violence left many traders and craftsmen with nothing. The ICRC offered financial support and business-management courses, helping them to re-launch their enterprises and become fully self-sufficient.