Many countries have yet to feel the full impact of the COVID-19 pandemic – which will certainly not be limited to the health of the people. Government restrictions, attempts to adapt, and the direct effects of the disease are likely to change the way people earn a living. Humanitarian actors have emphasised how this change may lead to vulnerable families becoming food insecure.
Some direct and indirect effects on the livelihoods of farmers, processors, transporters, wholesalers, retailers and consumers have been highlighted. For example, farmers may see their access to seeds, fertilisers, and other inputs disrupted. This could result in yield decreases. Transporters, especially informal and small traders, could be affected by mobility restrictions. Retailers could have occasional shortages. Consumption, especially of nutrient-rich products, may drop as a result of falling incomes and urban unemployment. The entire food system – from production to consumption – could be disrupted.
While the COVID-19 pandemic is a shock with a humanitarian impact, humanitarian actors are not equipped to respond to such a crisis. Humanitarian response aims to meet the immediate needs of victims of disasters or violence. It can include food, water, medical supplies, tents, and other things required by those affected by everything ranging from wars, natural disasters and pest invasions. Most humanitarian actors are accustomed to responding to threats to the "material hardware" of food production or access such as conflicts, drought, pests or other events. But the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the connections between suppliers, traders and consumers. It has disrupted the "software" of food systems.
Evolution of humanitarian standards
Since the development of humanitarian standards in the late 90s, there has been considerable effort to streamline post-disaster assessment, analysis and humanitarian response, despite the great diversity of shocks, contexts and cultures. The evolution of humanitarian response has influenced the current institutional architecture, i.e. the governance arrangements among actors and interests at the global level, and the development of an appropriate toolbox of response actions to food crises.
The 2008 and 2010 global price spikes increased impetus to rethink the food security institutional architecture at an international level. In those years, for example, the Comprehensive Framework of Action was established, and the Food Security Custer was reformed. While not perfect, institutional arrangements and partnerships are set: which humanitarian actor is supposed to do what and in collaboration with whom is known.
As a result, the humanitarian toolbox has never been so well equipped. Advances have been made in assessing various impacts of a shock on food consumption, food markets, human security and livelihoods. The Integrated Phase Classification was developed for classifying populations according to severity of food insecurity. In terms of planning and implementing a response with the appropriate instrument, there have been important innovations, too.
Years ago, food aid was mostly viewed in terms of saving lives and protecting livelihoods. With the evolution of the concept, guidelines are available for responding to food crises, on what response to use, when and under which conditions. For example, we know when new technologies can be effectively used in food security assessments, and when they are not so reliable. We now know that cash vouchers in a conflict area are inappropriate because food does not always reach markets at a predictable price and certain transfer modalities, such as telephone payments, cannot be relied upon. Another example is availability of guidelines to design of nutritional support in cities, where targeting is more complex than in rural areas.
Are the institutional architecture and toolbox appropriate for responding to a COVID-19 triggered food crisis?
A COVID-19 pandemic would not directly result from a sudden change that affects food availability, access, stability or utilisation, the pillars of food security. Rather the lack of capacity, among producers, traders and consumers, to recover their disrupted linkages with each other, and to plan and adapt accordingly would weaken the food system. It is not a matter of vulnerable households affected by a shock, but of the resilience of whole food systems. Some single instruments may be still appropriate for humanitarian action, such as cash transfers to the poor. However, other innovations are necessary to ensure effective humanitarian response.
New partnerships will need to be forged at the institutional level, for example, between traditional humanitarian actors and key supply chain knots, at the global, but, importantly, at the local level. The pandemic and related movement restrictions imply that local actors will likely become more important in identifying needs, mobilising funds and delivering aid.
Food security analysis could be extended to include food system elements and link them to assess the capacity of specific livelihood groups to respond to changes in how the interact and engage with other nodes within the food system.
Some instruments could be further developed, such as how food assistance should be better linked with nutritional interventions and social protection in the context of the pandemic. There are calls for humanitarian policy responses to increase universal basic income and healthcare access. More than 190 countries have expanded social welfare programmes – including unemployment pay, grants and cash top-ups. Building on the resilience of food systems, however, implies balancing the role of the state as a provider of safety nets, with assuring the profitability of private businesses along the chain of food production, transport, processing, distribution and consumption.
Maybe we will not need to reinvent the wheel. Research and practice have taught us a great deal about resilience, livelihood analysis, and food systems performance. Like the pieces of a kaleidoscope when tilted, some aspects have become more prominent. The crisis offers the opportunity to evaluate and rethink humanitarian response to be better suited by focusing on the new configuration of these pieces. We need to see what connects them without losing the ensemble. Will we able to connect the dots?
World Humanitarian Aid Day is commemorated each year on 19th August.
Filippo Fossi is a PhD candidate in the Department of Agricultural Economics, Extension and Rural Development at the University of Pretoria. He is a food security analyst consulting for FEWS NET and the World Food Programme for Southern Africa