VIEWPOINT: How do you think beyond food aid in a conflict?

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Friday, 19 September 2008 00:00 GMT

Women return from market to their homes in the village of El Moriib, in the southern Sudanese region of Nuba mountains, December 2006. REUTERS/Wolfgang Rattay

"For too long, we simply equated a food security problem with a food gap, and a food gap with a food aid response." Dan Maxwell said this in a speech once.

But achieving food security in protracted crisis situations - which are often accompanied by violent conflict and may last for decades - is a major challenge. A new book "Beyond Relief: Food Security in Protracted Crisis" draws together concrete examples from Somalia, Sudan and Democratic Republic of Congo to look at what worked - and what didn&${esc.hash}39;t. It asks if long-term food security is ever adequately considered in crises, and if food aid is supplied as an automatic default response. In fact, the book confirms that response usually consists of a long series of short-term "emergency" interventions that often overlook the problems that caused the crises in the first place.

Indeed, structural issues - in particular land tenure, but also competition over natural resources and failing institutions - are highly relevant as root causes for protracted crises. And they play a relevant role in further fuelling conflicts. So structural factors are exactly why these crises persist, and yet little is done to deal with these issues.

The book illustrates with vivid examples how structural factors have had an impact on food security and how appropriate responses by local actors or by external innovators have rarely been supported by the international community because of inappropriate delivery mechanisms, poor analysis and misconceived policies.

For instance, in Congo local peace councils called "chambres de paix" have been successful in solving land-related conflicts. Yet the "chambres de paix" have not been supported by the international community.

In southern Sudan too, informal institutions were the key to improving food security and conflict resolution in the Nuba mountains. What happened in the Nuba mountains is an excellent example of how essential it is to work with local stakeholders in planning, delivering and assessing interventions. Working closely with local stakeholders is perhaps the only way of contributing to a process of conflict transformation and overcoming the superficial analysis and detrimental response that follows from not understanding the complex dynamics at play.

Sara Pantuliano from British think tank Overseas Development Institute tells how: "(The) humanitarian community supported the Area Rehabilitation Scheme in the Nuba mountains, in spite of the fact that it was instrumental to the government of Sudan&${esc.hash}39;s policy of depopulating areas under SPLM/A control and was consequently a factor in the conflict."

Undoubtedly, it is difficult to find suitable entry points in situations where institutions have almost totally collapsed - as if often the case in protracted crises. This also brings up the interesting question of how people organise themselves when governments and institutions are weak - or even worse, predatory - and how external actors fit into the overall picture.

And yet, windows of opportunities do open up even under the most stressful situations. For example, the studies in this book show that, against all odds, people continue to invest in assets such as land and livestock. Furthermore, aid agencies often overlook the fact that markets continue to function - and even flourish.

For example, Somalia had a buoyant currency, largely supported by remittances, within two years of the collapse of the state. Trade with neighbouring countries was flourishing and Somali entrepreneurs took advantage of emerging technologies, such as mobile phones, for new business opportunities.

The book makes the case that external actors should support patterns of resilience and acknowledge that people are already acting for the long term and not merely waiting for the emergency to be over. It also notes that mainstream analytical frameworks are hardly appropriate in this respect.

And it highlights the importance of simultaneously addressing immediate and institutional needs - as well as policy and livelihoods dimensions of crises - to decrease vulnerability while building viable and resilient mechanisms in these societies.

This would require rethinking aid delivery mechanisms and architectures, coming up with innovative and forward-looking approaches, making strategic alliances and harnessing political will.

As one author remarked in a workshop on the subject: "You must think beyond even when you cannot yet act beyond."

The authors of "Beyond Relief: Food Security in Protracted Crisis" will present it at a seminar at ODI in London on Sept. 25, 2008.

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