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Food crisis: it's not enough just to deliver food

16-10-2008 Interview

As the worldwide food crisis deepens, the ICRC's Alain Mourey underlines the need to analyse the root causes, which can vary depending on the region. The author of the ICRC’s nutrition manual explains why it is not enough merely to supply the needy with food rations.

  Nutrition manual for humanitarian actionby Alain Mourey    
  © ICRC / P. Yazdi / V-P-SD-E-00376    
  Dunay, Somalia. Nomad families receiving food from the ICRC.    

  © ICRC / C. De Keyzer / V-P-SD-E-00764    
  South Kivu province, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Women working in the fields within an economic security project supported by ICRC.    

  © ICRC / B. Heger /V-P-SD-E-01658    
  Kutum region, Sudan. ICRC staff vaccinating goats to help preserve herds.    
  Alain Mourey    
     Does your nutrition manual propose a solution to the current food crisis?  

The food crisis stems from escalating prices of primary agricultural produce, an unprecedented increase in oil prices, and many other factors. Armed conflict and drought only add to the burden. Hence the food crisis hits not only the poorest among the poor but, quite simply, all of the poor. To solve it, you need to make stru ctural changes in the world economy, such as introducing limits on speculation and hoarding, and reversing the trend of cash crops replacing food crops.

The ICRC has no ready-made solution to propose to policymakers worldwide. However, our nutrition manual explains how to analyse and understand the root causes of malnutrition in a given community. Our findings have been tried and tested over more than two decades of helping victims of armed conflict and other forms of violence. When the inhabitants of entire villages flee their homes, they usually lose their livelihoods overnight, and must depend on aid to survive. It is of the utmost importance that aid workers be able to understand the particular needs of the people they are trying to help, and to take action that goes beyond ensuring mere survival.

 How can the manual help practitioners and policymakers combat malnutrition?  

It's a book in which practitioners can find a broad analysis of the many causes that malnutrition can have, depending on the context. Of course, because it is a nutrition manual, it is limited to the field of nutrition, but it does insist on the fact that malnutrition must be viewed as a symptom. It is as important to tackle the causes as it is to treat the symptoms.

Classic ways of dealing with nutrition are not sufficient by themselves. It is even more important to restore livelihoods, to provide access to health care and water, and to ensure that people have decent housing. These aims cannot be covered in a nutrition manual, but it has to be acknowledged that different kinds of humanitarian work play complementary roles. The desirability of adopting a multipurpose and multidisciplinary approach also explains why nutrition has been integrated into the economic security unit at the ICRC.

 So what are your key findings in terms of aid needed?  

The most obvious finding is that it is seldom enough just to deliver food, even though you may sometimes need to do so as a short-term emergency measure. In central and southern Somalia, recent months have been particularly hard for the population, with continuing armed clashes only adding to the hardships caused by severe drought, high inflation and the worldwide rise in commodity prices.

In June, the ICRC decided to considerably step up its humanitarian relief work there. Not only did we deliver four months'worth of dry-food rations to nearly half a million people, but we have also been trucking over two million litres of drinking water every day. In addition, we distributed shelter materials and essential household items to over 200,000 displaced people, and stepped up our support for health clinics run by the Somali Red Crescent Society. Over the long term, however, you'll need to find ways to help the affected communities become self-sufficient again.

 What is the ICRC doing to help communities restore their livelihoods?  

The range of activities is as diverse as the needs are – everything depends on the particular circumstances. In the Republic of the Congo, agricultural activities in the department of Pool stagnated because of the succession of conflicts that followed the first civil war in 1997. Once calm had returned, former refugees often found that their houses had been looted and their cassava plantations devastated. To make matters worse, mosaic disease was affecting most of the remaining cassava plants.

Our answer was to supply farmers with tools and cassava seedlings that are more resistant to the disease. The distributions were always combined with training and advice on the best way of planting the cro p. Elsewhere, our staff have helped fishing communities by supplying fishing gear, and carried out mass vaccinations of camels and goats to help pastoralists preserve their herds. We have also sometimes provided loans or grants.

 How can assistance protect people affected by armed conflict?  

Our overarching mandate is to protect people adversely affected by armed conflict or internal strife. Our economic security programmes are therefore connected not only to health programmes or to programmes aiming to provide people with access to water and proper sanitation, but also, as far as possible, to protection efforts. For example, when we deliver cooking fuel to displaced families gathering in camps, it helps reduce the need for women to venture out in search of firewood at great risk to their physical safety.