The UN is pushing for a dual-track response to the food insecurity crises. Is this feasible?

A man serves lentils to a young girl at a feeding centre in Mogadishu, Somalia. Photo by: Tobin Jones / United Nations

Humanitarian responses to simultaneous food insecurity crises and famines in four countries across Africa and the Middle East remain firmly in the emergency response stage, leaving little room for necessary development work, according to interviews with international NGO workers in South Sudan, Nigeria, Somalia and Yemen.

Last month, three of the United Nations’ highest-ranking officials called for a push beyond emergency work, and lobbied for a “dual track” response, meaning development work should accompany the necessary humanitarian relief work underway. Some specific, inter-agency projects on infrastructure and agriculture are part of this tactic, which has been lauded in recent years. 

However, the current multiple crises are seeing that strategy run into some difficulties.

“What we see in Yemen, for the moment, we have several thousand severely malnourished kids. This is not the time for development. It is the time for lifesaving activities,” said Eric Jeunot, the former Médecins Sans Frontières head of mission in Yemen, who recently finished his term in the country, where more than half the population of nearly 28 million is food insecure.

“The country is still at war daily, with shellings, bombings … with this, we don't talk about development. We talk about life saving surgery for a population that doesn't have access to food. Development will come — it is important — but it is not the priority.”

Lack of access to vulnerable populations is a shared concern across the four nations, despite the unique circumstances of the individual conflicts and food crises. This leaves only a partial understanding of each situation’s severity, worsened in many cases by collapsed agricultural systems.

U.N. officials acknowledge that access in the four countries — which are all facing protracted conflicts — and the safety of NGOs, the U.N. and other aid officials are creating problems in the delivery of services and goods.

“There is food in Somalia, there is water in Somalia. What is problematic is access to that. So when we ask for assistance we do prefer that it is financial contribution so that gives flexibility to the response,” said Justin Brady, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs Somalia representative. “The timing of the money is so important because getting ahead of this and preventing children from falling into severe acute malnutrition and getting aid out to the rural areas where people are most vulnerable is crucial.”

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres, U.N. Development Programme Administrator Helen Clark and Under Secretary-General Stephen O’Brien launched a joint $5.6 billion emergency appeal by this summer to support the 20 million people at risk of starvation. They said a collective $4.4 billion — only a small portion of which has been raised so far — was needed by the end of March.

Approximately 80 percent of the people impacted by the food insecurity crises and famine — declared just in South Sudan — depend on agriculture for their livelihood, according to Dominique Burgeon, the director of the Food and Agriculture Organization’s emergency and rehabilitation division.  

“With approximately 80 percent of the affected populations relying on agriculture for their livelihoods, we must invest now in pulling people back from the brink. Often famine starts in rural areas and must be prevented in rural areas — agriculture cannot be an afterthought,” Burgeon told Devex, noting that the FAO’s assistance to these countries includes crop and vegetable seeds, as well as fishing kits.

“To avert a humanitarian catastrophe in the four countries over the coming months, we need to scale up livelihood support and income opportunities to affected families.”

The reality of climate change, resulting in higher global temperatures and more frequent extreme weather events, including drought, also means that the risk of food insecurity crises such as these will become increasingly common.

In South Sudan, where an estimated 5.5 million people are expected to be severely food insecure by this July, Plan International is struggling to respond to a deteriorating situation, says Daniel Muchena, the South Sudan country director.

Last month, the U.N. declared a famine in parts of the civil-war torn country, where the World Food Programme, as a “last resort” for aid delivery, has been air dropping food. Road access is an ongoing problem there. Six aid workers from a UNICEF partner organization were killed in an ambush last week — marking the worst attack on aid workers in the country’s latest civil war.

Plan International has scaled back a few of its development projects in the past few months, as a Canadian donor pulled funding for an education program in South Sudan. Other projects are still ongoing.

Development work “has definitely cut back. Some levels of it continue, but people are starving, and with whatever resources you have here, you need to be saving lives,” said Muchena.

Lack of access has manifested most severely for Oxfam in Northeast Nigeria, says Pauline Ballaman, the operational lead for the Lake Chad Basin response. An estimated 450,000 children will suffer from malnutrition there this year, according to UNICEF. Ballaman has seen people in famine-like conditions, and says the extent of the suffering is unknown, as people remain trapped by the violent extremist group Boko Haram.

“To say we are overstretched is an understatement. The low level of funding has really impacted the situation,” Ballaman said. “The U.N. is focusing on food, nutrition, water, sanitation, hygiene and health, and that is also what Oxfam is focusing on, because it’s not just about having food and nutrition, we are doing a lot of water and sanitation, as well, so people don’t become vulnerable to communicable diseases.”

Oxfam called for a dual-track development and humanitarian approach in South Sudan five years ago, amid internal political conflict and displacement, but it is unusual to hear this type of strategy promoted during the “heart of a crisis.”

Christin Roby and Adva Saldinger contributed reporting for this article.

Read more international development news online, and subscribe to The Development Newswire to receive the latest from the world’s leading donors and decision-makers — emailed to you free every business day.

About the author

  • Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the U.N. Correspondent for Devex. She covers the United Nations and reports on global development and politics. Amy previously worked as a freelance reporter, covering the environment, human rights, immigration, and health across the U.S. and in more than 10 countries, including Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, and Cambodia. Her coverage has appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times. A native New Yorker, Amy received her master’s degree in politics and government from Columbia’s School of Journalism.