World Vision expert pushes long-term hunger solution for fragile states

Congolese farmer.
Congolese farmer.
Congolese farmer.

When it comes to the priorities of fragile and conflict-affected states, nutrition is often low on the list.

Forty-two countries around the world are classified as fragile and conflict-affected states (FCS), but only half have joined a UN-backed nutrition scheme called Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN).

Governments often favor instant solutions to hunger problems at the expense of longer term changes that will eliminate chronic under-nutrition.

The trend over the past few decades is to invest the majority of money on nutrition into emergency food distribution and in kind donations.

Donors like the United States will provide food from US farmers to feed people facing hunger in a country like Somalia, but do little to support programs that ensure that persistent hunger ends.

As much of 90% of food distributions come with an expiration date. Once the predetermined date is met the project ends.

It doesn’t have to be this way, says Sebastian Taylor of World Vision.

“There is an astonishingly low investments in agriculture by donors,” said Taylor to Humanosphere. “Countries need to develop a national program for development in which agriculture productivity is a core strategy and reducing malnutrition is a part of it.” A report authored by Taylor called Fragile but not Helpless: Scaling Up Nutrition in Fragile and Conflict-Affected States shows the problems faced by FCS and makes recommendations for how donor governments can improve nutrition in the world’s most challenging places.

Poor nutrition can be deadly and cause irreparable damage for children. Children who do not receive adequate nutrition during the first two years of life are prone to development problems ranging from stunted growth to reduced IQ.

Health problems persist later in life for undernourished children who face higher rates of diabetes, stroke, hypertension and other physical ailments. Under-nutrition costs the 36 high-burden countries an estimated $260 billion a year, found a 2008 Lancet Nutrition Series report.

The Scaling Up Nutrition movement established in 2010 by the UN, donors, businesses and developing countries is meant to help with this problem. Countries have the option of joining SUN where they are provided external technical and financial support to determine their own nutrition agendas. The country-led process is designed so that governments can respond to under-nutrition in a way that will work best for its citizens. Despite the fact that it is country-drive and easy to join, the majority of FCS countries are not members.

Taylor found that there are countries that are barely aware of SUN. A better promotion effort by donors and UN partners could reach that missing few. Additionally, Taylor shows that countries with poor economies and governance are less likely to be SUN members. That knowledge provides an opportunity for donors to incentivize poorer nations to join and encourage improved governance structures.

Donors will need to make partnerships with developing countries that are both long and short term. Doing so will eliminate the uncertainty that may keep countries away from joining SUN.

Uncertainty over future resources not only reduces political engagement. It increases the disincentive for individual institutions and ministries to engage in the longer-term, intersectoral mode of working that SUN envisages.

Taylor recognizes that SUN is not perfect, but it is the best option available and more importantly seeks to drive long-term solutions and investments in undernutrition. Security does not have to be the only concern for FCS countries. Conflict is often contained to regions within a country. The eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo gets a lot of attention due to the fighting and instability in the region, the the massive middle of the country is much more stable by comparison. That is a place where donors can engage in projects.

In fact, Taylor found that insecurity does not necessarily mean that a country’s government is ineffective. Insecurity can be limiting, but it does not have to stop all potential progress.

Part of the problem is the incentives are askew for recipient and donor governments alike. Providing immediate aid to people in need is politically expedient for local politicians. Putting food on the table at a moment of crisis today carries more weight that making investments which will reduce problems in the future. The same goes for donor governments. They get to tout the number of lives saved and show the immediate impact of food distributions.

“Problem is that donors have limited sources, so they dump them where they have the highest visibility. Donors need to do much more collaborative work in other parts of countries,” said Taylor.

Even the most broken governments have working parts. Staff for foreign governments that stay in their compounds, away from local government agencies, will get little done.  Taylor does not minimize the security concerns that some face, but points out that the lack of contact makes it much harder to monitor institutional processes in counterpart governments. Donor governments have the opportunity to provide a level of financial stability so that sustainable solutions to hunger can be implemented.

“There is a working assumption that any fragile state is where you cannot work with the government beyond short term emergency interventions,” said Taylor to Humanosphere. “There are always parts of government which work reasonably well. Are donors looking hard enough?”

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.