Section 7: Programming in Emergencies


Food security

Food security issues may emerge as a result of food price rises, droughts, floods, earthquakes or a combination of these factors. Food crises are more often than not a failure of public policy – an abdication of responsibility by the state to respect, protect and fulfill their citizens’ right to food. It is caused because of lack of entitlements, including social capital. There may be many factors that cause a food crisis – but if adequate systems were in place, there is no reason why anyone should live with hunger given that the world produces enough food for our needs.

Secure access to adequate and safe food is a universal human right, which all states of the international community are mutually obliged to respect, protect and fulfill, including an extraterritorial obligation not to violate the right to food of the people of other countries. The FAO and Sphere have defined food security as ‘all people at all times have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food for a healthy and active life’.

Recent causes of food price crises include:

  • Extreme weather conditions, structural changes in commodities markets, food and energy speculation, biofuels mandates, and longer term trends on both sides of the food supply/demand equation that are driving prices up:

    • On the demand side the causes are population growth, rising affluence, changing diets, and the increasing use of grain to fuel motor vehicles.

    • On the supply side: soil erosion, aquifer depletion, loss of cropland to non-farm uses, plateauing crop yields and the growing impact of climate change are all squeezing supplies, while steadily rising oil and gas prices have increased fertiliser, production and transport costs. A weak dollar, ultra-loose monetary policies, and an explosion of speculative activity on commodity futures markets is also considered to be amplifying price movements.

  • National causes includes rising cost of production (due to fuel charges, high input prices, fertilisers, pesticides, excessive interest from money lenders), transportation costs, abnormal profits by middlemen, taxes on food items, drop in food production due to weather problems etc.

ActionAid will go deeper into analysis about the experience of women and other excluded groups in assessment and identify the causes of an acute and persistent food crisis caused by:

  • Availability: damage of crops as a result of disasters, displacement caused by conflict or other reasons, reduction of labour forces, depletion of pasture and grazing land and climatic factors causing failure of crop production.

  • Access: caused by destruction of livelihoods as a result of disaster, restriction in access to natural resources, price hikes and unemployment.

  • Consumption: including looking at dietary diversity and intra-household food distribution, where in most cases women get the least share.

Following analysis of the assessment, we design our own response and the response of our partners, and identify what is expected from duty bearers both in the short term and longer term.

Guiding principles

  • The right to food is enshrined in human rights law and many national constitutions and policies. Country programmes need to check the legal status of the right to food in their respective constitutions. Given enough food in the world, there is no reason for food shortages – it is a failure of policy and lack of entitlement that leads to hunger. The short-term trigger could be a flood, drought, locusts, but the failure is policy failure. Governments have the responsibility to respect, protect and fulfil the right to food. While ActionAid believes the state is responsible to secure the right to food, ActionAid will always respond to food crises if there are significant gaps and we have the capacity to respond.

  • ActionAid’s aim is to ensure that chronic hunger or silent hunger does not go unnoticed. We will put in place mechanisms to monitor hunger trends, to ensure that we have alert levels that help trigger our response before a full-blown crisis develops.

  • ActionAid’s response in food crisis is guided by our strategy to secure the right to food through ensuring small-scale food producers, women, and other vulnerable groups are at the forefront of the response and programme design.

  • ActionAid has subscribed to the principles of food sovereignty and believes that communities should have the right to determine their own polices, especially with regards to agriculture and food security. We believe that smallholder led sustainable agricultural production and increased access and control over natural resources by rural women are two of the most effective strategies to address long-term food security.

  • ActionAid will respond with appropriate means based on sound analysis of the severity of the crisis and alternative responses. ActionAid will respond with its core strength with a preference for livelihood support to meet long- and short-term food crisis needs – we will only intervene with free food distribution or therapeutic care if such services are not available, and there is malnutrition and significant threat to life. We will combine food distribution with our livelihood programmes.

  • ActionAid will always defend people’s right to food through policy research, advocacy and campaigning aimed at securing food for women and other excluded people.

  • Any withdrawal of food response should be gradual and strategic, made only after careful assessment of the risks and implications on the affected population.

  • ActionAid will always assess the implications of the provision of food aid – both our own and that of other actors – on people living in poverty and the local markets, and will always oppose genetically modified food or seeds.

  • ActionAid will look at interventions that support increased incomes, increased wellbeing and reduced vulnerability.

  • Interventions should be locally appropriate. For example, in any seed distribution, we must take into account locally appropriate seeds; and only purchase high input intensive seeds when it is appropriate to do so.

ActionAid focuses on women living in poverty and exclusion. From a food security perspective, in our work with women smallholders we need to ensure that there is adequate focus on the following seven areas of intervention:

  1. Improvement in Women’s food security

    • Number of meals per day

  2. Active participation of women in collective action (and solidarity with women who can’t join the groups)

    • Number of women who are member of groups

  3. Improved access to basic services

    • Number of women who access agricultural extension services

    • Number of women who access basic services including childcare, health, education

  4. Improved access to and control over productive resources (individual and collective) for women

    • Number of women who have access to land

    • Number of women who have access to livestock

  5. Increased intake of sustainable agricultural practices

    • Reduction in use of external inputs

    • Water conservation/sustainable water management

    • Diversification of crops and livelihoods

    • Improved access to markets

  6. Enhanced contributions by women to household revenues (and control over these resources)

    • Number of women who can decide what to do with their production

    • Number of women who have a say in household spending/revenue decisions

  7. Optimised time and resources spent in care and reproductive activities by women – policies and interventions must recognise women’s paid and unpaid work, including unpaid care work

    • Time spent in care activities – recognised or paid for

    • Time spent in unpaid work – recognised or paid for

    • Time spent on leisure.


  • Understand both the causes of food crisis and the experience felt by women and children.

  • Understand what capacity already exists to reduce food insecurity.

  • Work with specialised agencies on nutritional assessment as it is not our core strength.

  • Establish surveillance on the evolving nature of the food crisis and monitoring to understand the causes of food crisis, and impact on livelihoods, food consumption, and coping strategies of households particularly women.

  • When planning any intervention, such as food or cash support, build in a plan for evaluation to look at the impact of that intervention on local markets, as they can cause pocket inflation or increase prices – doing harm to the people we aim to serve.

  • Wnsure that interventions planned consider gendered roles and help empower women and challenge gender relations in addition to addressing their food security.

Deciding strategy

  • If food is available in the market, adopt cash-based approaches such as cash-for-work or training.

  • Do not consider cooked food and therapeutic care unless ActionAid and partners have the capacity and proven experience to do so.

  • Consider food distribution in schools only when there is proven malnutrition risk among children. There are multiple benefits of food distribution when done appropriately – such as education, capacity-building and restoration of household and community infrastructure. ActionAid will support those households whose children are likely to drop out from school, enter child labour or be married early due to food shortages.

  • Distribute food only preferred by women and rights holders. Food distribution thresholds to be determined by the size and requirement of households such as lactating or pregnant women.

  • Intervene based on community indicators before a food crisis becomes acute – share your analysis with government and other actors.

  • Promote alternatives to food distribution by strengthening means of livelihoods, and use this as a phase-out strategy.

  • Keep an eye on the local food prices, on media reports of shortages, and on harvest figures. You can access national price data through FAO’s global food price monitor. The FAO global food price monitor provides a national trend – for local prices often there isn’t any published data available, in which case you could monitor the prices locally. You could keep track of the prices of key staples in local markets over two or three seasons and chart them in a graph in the DA/partner’s office. Monitor your prices against this graph, and if the local price exceeds the twothree season average by more than 10% you should take note. This is just guidance, local factors are often extremely crucial and your local knowledge will be essential in making a prudent call.

  • Be ready to respond and raise the issues in the media as well as with your government. You may be able to break the story in the media and get attention for your issues – if you are able to predict the crisis based on our information from the ground on harvest failures, food shortages, price rises etc.

  • Demand that governments bring together all sectors to agree and implement a national food security plan to prevent current and future food crisis. If such a plan already exists, demand an urgent review to see what elements are not working or could be scaled up. The UN High Level Task Force and the FAO’s Committee on World Food Security have both proposed national food security councils. The Brazilian National Council for Food Security and Nutrition is another good example of multi-sectoral, multi-stakeholder councils.

  • Discuss your own immediate and medium-term response with partners on the ground to ensure the basic food needs of the rights holders are met.

Implementing intervention

  • In the short term consider amongst other actions:

    • Provision of food, cash, vouchers or a combination, depending on the local context.

    • Lobby the government for food price controls or subsidies for those most affected by hunger.

    • Call for expansion of social protection programmes including cash transfers, school feeding, food-for-work, cash-for-work, subsidised food rations, expansion of public distribution systems, setting up of community kitchens, provision of and scale up of community based therapeutic feeding.

    • Lobby governments for provision of seeds, inputs and micro-finance to farmers in time for next planting season, where appropriate expand the coverage of ActionAid’s and its partners interventions of inputs.

    • Lobby for temporary reduction in tariffs or a temporary export ban (depending on if you are an importing country or if your country exports).

  • Over the longer term in order to help build resilience and enhance food security consider the following;

    • Facilitate a robust analysis critically examining the cause of food crisis and potential solutions at the community level, taking on board a women’s rights perspective. In this analysis it is also essential that we critically look at the laws/policies/schemes that enable/inhibit the community’s own efforts at becoming food secure. Some of these may be linked with national or international factors. In the last international food price rise crisis the most important coping mechanism communities resorted to was use of their own networks and community coping mechanisms. It is crucial to help support strong local networks and support structures.

    • Promotion of sustainable agriculture that is climate resilient at the local level and in our advocacy work nationally and internationally. At the local level this could include farmer to farmer exchanges, farmer field schools, support for household and community seed banks, farming co-operatives, documenting promising practices at the local level to be used for scaling up.

    • Promotion of local and national grain banks in the communities we work with, but also in our advocacy work.

    • Lobbying for increased public budgets for agriculture. This could mean continuing existing national level research on public financing for agriculture; scaling up our work on budget tracking with local communities and women’s groups; rolling out investing in women farmer toolkits; advocacy to ensure government or regional targets are met and that they support smallholder farmers, in particular women smallholders; and poverty reduction and climate resilience.

    • Tracking access to social transfers (government schemes that strengthen local resilience and production) to make sure that the right people are benefiting and that coverage is sufficient.

    • Mobilise civil society and community-based organisations to engage national policymakers to address the causes of the crisis; by putting in place sustainable systems, processes, policies and programmes.

    • Facilitate engagement with international actors (including the UN, social movements, G20) to put pressure on and support the capacity of the national process to initiate and sustain change.

    • Consider local purchases to strengthen markets.

Addressing malnutrition

  • Work with specialised agencies such as WFP or UNICEF on deciding and implementing nutritional programmes.

  • Follow established standards such as Sphere to implement nutritional interventions.

Further Reading