Opinion: Building on past success to prevent a COVID-19-related food crisis

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John Andrea Kunamba (middle) and his family harvesting rice in Kigugu Village, Mvomero, Tanzania. Photo by: Hans Ngoteya / ActionAid

Coronavirus has been called the great equalizer,” but that could not be further from reality. The COVID-19 crisis is exposing growing inequalities within and between countries. Unless governments act swiftly, what started as a health crisis will soon turn into a food crisis.

Global food security trends were alarming even before the pandemic threw the world into chaos. After decades of decline, global hunger continues to rise for the third consecutive year due to climate disasters, conflicts, and economic downturns. More than 820 million people suffer from hunger, and if we also consider people affected by moderate levels of food insecurity, it is estimated that over 2 billion people do not have regular access to safe, nutritious, and sufficient food, including 8% of the population in North America and Europe. Just five years after the international community committed to eradicate hunger by 2030 — via Sustainable Development Goal 2 — we are already off track and risk failing completely.

While wealthier countries such as the United States, hit hard by COVID-19, are focusing on recovery measures for their populations and economies, they should not forget more marginalized groups including smallholder farmers, agricultural workers, essential workers, women, and indigenous people. Without adequate support, these communities will pay the highest price. Nobody can exit this crisis alone. We must all build solidarity and cooperation to create the necessary conditions to recover and prevent future crises.

Lessons we can draw on

As dire as the situation is, we can draw lessons from recent history. This is not the first time the world has been on the brink of a food crisis. In 2007 and 2008, the world faced a food price crisis that put millions of people under the poverty line and sparked riots about the high prices of basic staples. The international community was initially unprepared to respond, and many people suffered for the lack of policy coordination.

As a result, the G-20 governments launched the Global Agriculture and Food Security Program, an innovative, multilateral fund to support low-income countries increase investment in agriculture. GAFSP was conceived as one pillar of a renewed global governance on food security where all relevant actors participate in the decision-making process. This includes small-scale farmers, who produce most of the world’s food and are most affected by food insecurity, but rarely have opportunities to influence the policies and programs intended to build their capacity.

As we all continue to weather this difficult time, we urge governments to come together to protect their people from another global food crisis.

At ActionAid, we believe GAFSP is the best tool to support food security and nutrition in the time of COVID-19. Since its inception in 2010, and as of December 2019, GAFSP has invested a total of $1.6 billion in supporting more than 13 million smallholder farmers and their families, including 5.6 million women. Instead of reinventing the wheel, we can use GAFSP as a roadmap to stave off another food crisis.

How GAFSP will help governments respond effectively to food insecurity in the COVID era

1. Generate inclusivity
Producers’ organizations, or POs, and civil society organizations are part of GAFSP’s governance and help shape appropriate responses to food insecurity. At the global level, regional farmers’ platforms ensure that the views of smallholders are constantly considered, while at the national level, GAFSP continues to push for greater and more active involvement of farmers’ associations in project design and implementation. Farmers’ organizations and civil society organizations have improved projects by effectively identifying the needs of small-scale farmers and indicating which methods have succeeded or failed in the past.

2. Offer diverse expertise 
GAFSP counts on the diversity of knowledge, expertise, and learnings of donors, implementing partners, development banks, POs, and CSOs. We know GAFSP offers solutions to support food security and nutrition because producers themselves participate in the process and tell us about project impacts including diversified production, increased financial literacy, and access to credit, markets, and government officials. Farmers offer feedback on what works and what doesn’t work. Countries may decide which supervising entity to work with, and this process strengthens successful partnerships.

3. Offer flexibility in its response to countries’ needs
The program works through a call for proposals model that promotes demand-led interventions and allows the fund to respond quickly without excessive bureaucracy. Last year, GAFSP launched a special call for proposals targeting fragile and conflict-affected countries because new research showed that conflict and the climate crisis are the two largest driving factors in food insecurity. The program approved approximately $127 million in new grants for nine of these projects. Now as the pandemic looms, the same recipient countries have already been invited to submit adjustments to their projects to address unexpected impacts by COVID-19. This is just one example of GAFSP’s efficiency in receiving, reviewing, and approving the proposals.

4. Offer a variety of funding options
There is a full spectrum of funding opportunities, from grants to countries and POs, to blended finance to cooperatives, agribusiness, and small and medium-sized enterprises. This way, different segments of the agricultural sector may access funding that fits their needs and while complementing other segments’ goals. Local food systems have proven resilient during this pandemic, and direct grants to POs especially will maximize the potential of small-scale farmers who can get food to where it’s needed. In wealthy countries like the U.S., we already see family farmers and community supported agriculture stepping in to provide and even deliver fresh produce that big grocery stores are struggling to supply.

With global hunger rising and farmer incomes declining, family farmers must be at the center of their own development. Via YouTube.

5. Use a comprehensive approach
It looks at agricultural development in a comprehensive way, not only raising agricultural productivity but also supporting sustainable agriculture and smallholders — to achieve SDG 2 — promoting access to markets, and promoting women’s empowerment, nutrition, climate change adaptation, and job creation. Within GAFSP, CSOs advocate for a holistic approach that tackles the different dimensions of agricultural systems and upholds the rights of rural women, young people, and other marginalized groups.

6. Build countries’ resilience to climate change
The number of GAFSP projects supporting climate mitigation and adaptation has steadily increased in recent years, with 100% of current projects using GAFSP funds for climate resilience. Without any requirement from donors, countries themselves recognized the need to tackle climate change and designed their own strategies to respond. With coronavirus exacerbating climate stressors on the global food system, GAFSP provides a path forward for climate solutions and food security.

Governments have a crucial role to play to reduce COVID-19’s impact on food security and nutrition. The extraordinary budget allocations for COVID-19 response offer an additional opportunity for governments to consider how they will each contribute to ending hunger. Sustaining the work of GAFSP is a strategic place to start. As we all continue to weather this difficult time, we urge governments to come together to protect their people from another global food crisis.

For more information on GAFSP, click here.

About the authors

  • Niranjali Amerasinghe

    Niranjali Amerasinghe is the executive director of ActionAid USA and has extensive experience with international climate negotiations, forest governance, and accountability. Amerasinghe was previously a senior associate at the World Resources Institute and led the Finance Center’s policy work on international climate finance and the Green Climate Fund. She holds an LL.M in international and comparative law from the George Washington University Law School.
  • Alberta Guerra

    Alberta Guerra is a senior policy analyst at ActionAid USA and an expert in global food policies, focusing on right to food, land rights, agroecology, and global governance. She also serves as ActionAid’s liaison with the Committee on World Food Security, IFAD, and FAO in Rome.