Tech companies join in effort to help prevent famine

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres (third from left) makes remarks during an event on partnering to address acute food insecurity. Photo by: Rick Bajornas / U.N.

NEW YORK — Before food insecurity becomes a famine, there are often early warning signs that things are about to get worse, but organizations are not always able to act quickly enough deploying resources before a crisis turns into a catastrophe.

In an effort to harness technology to help prevent famines, the World Bank partnered with global technology firms, U.N. agencies, and humanitarian organizations to develop the Famine Action Mechanism, or FAM — the first global mechanism that is dedicated to preventing future famines. Through a new model called Artemis, it will use the predictive power of data as an early warning system to identify when food crises might turn into famines — generating alerts for funding and action plans by donors, governments, and humanitarian agencies.

“Famine risks today tend to be highest where poor communities are experiencing shocks such as conflict. Think of places like Yemen, Chad, South Sudan, and northeast Nigeria. Humanitarian workers put their lives on the line to get information about what’s happening to these communities and how best to help them,” Franck Bousquet, senior director of the Fragility, Conflict & Violence Group at the World Bank, told Devex via email. “Artificial intelligence and machine learning are tools to help bring more 21st-century support to this centuries-old problem.”

Last year, more than 20 million people faced famine in parts of Nigeria, Yemen, Somalia, and South Sudan. Factors ranging from conflict to poverty to climate change have contributed to 124 million people living in crisis levels of food insecurity, leading to deaths, high assistance costs, and the derailment of development gains in poor countries. Figures such as these inspired this effort to link data analytics with financing in order to help the humanitarian community shift from being reactive to proactively using artificial intelligence and machine learning for prediction, action, and prevention.

“Artificial intelligence and other advanced technologies can be a powerful force for good, and we've already seen that they have the potential to help farmers identify disease in cassava plants, keep cows healthier and more productive, and integrate overall relief efforts,” said Kent Walker, senior vice president of global affairs and chief legal officer at Google, which has joined Microsoft and Amazon Web Services in providing technology expertise to FAM to track worsening food security crises in real time.

Artemis can take in large amounts of data from a number of different sources, ranging from cell phones to social media to satellite images. It can find links to inform better programming, by providing decision makers with the best information — when, where, and how to deploy resources to prevent situations from becoming worse.

In some of the driest stretches of Kenya, Somalia, and Ethiopia, shortages of pasture and water lead pastoralists to sell their livestock, for example, driving fluctuations in the price of goats that could be early warning signs of an oncoming drought.

Technology enables experts to use observations and predictions as evidence, and this can be convincing at the negotiating table, experts told Devex.

“The FAM is one of those initiatives with such a scale that it might actually help us change from a model where we are typically reacting, or not financing the responses early enough, to a new reality where we are … putting ourselves ahead of the crisis in terms of financing, ... data and analysis, and … preparing the different actors on the ground to respond much earlier,” said U.N. Humanitarian Affairs Officer Juan Chavez-Gonzales, who advises the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs’ financing division.

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Last year, OCHA launched a Center for Humanitarian Data to increase the use and impact of data in the humanitarian sector. In this FAM partnership, it will advise the World Bank on the best way of implementing the funds once the model predicts how food insecurity may lead to famine.

Humanitarian organizations follow a scale called the Integrated Phase Classification, to determine if households are meeting their basic needs. Until now, members of the humanitarian community have had to wait for long reporting cycles to determine how these indicators are evolving. But the FAM should speed up data collection so funding instruments can be triggered and governments, NGOs, and other responders can activate the plans they have in place. 

“What convinced us to partner with technology firms is the alarming rate of food insecurity in the world and the complex nature of famine, which requires greater collaboration across the humanitarian, development, security nexus and the private sector,” said Bousquet, of the World Bank.

FAM, which was announced during the “Partnering to Address Severe Food Insecurity” meeting at the U.N. General Assembly, builds on famine-prevention work by the World Bank and the U.N. In May, the U.N. adopted a resolution on the links between conflict-induced food insecurity and famine, as part of an effort to address risks more systematically. And in July, the World Bank endorsed the Global Crisis Risk Platform to identify risks before they become crises, with FAM being an example of this effort in action.

The partnership’s success could hinge on whether stakeholders are able to improve data and early warning systems, link those with the deployment of a variety of financial responses including grants, loans, and market-based solutions, and lower the threshold of acceptance for severe levels of food insecurity so that action comes sooner, said Diana Santana, spokesperson for the International Committee of the Red Cross delegation to United Nations.

FAM will initially be rolled out in a select group of vulnerable countries, where partners will be testing Artemis’ usability on the ground and at global levels, before meeting to discuss further implementation of the initiative at the upcoming World Bank Annual Meetings.

NCDs. Climate change. Financing. Read more of Devex's coverage from the 73rd U.N. General Assembly here.

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    Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology and innovation in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported from all over the world, and freelanced for outlets including the Atlantic and the Washington Post. She is also the West Coast ambassador for the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit that trains and connects journalists to cover responses to problems.