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Improving Emergency Food Responses

June 21, 2007
Tufts University, Health Sciences
A food aid expert outlines emerging best practice standards for emergency international food aid, including areas such as information systems, analytical tools and strategic targeting of beneficiaries.

Implementing best-practice standards for emergency international food aid will improve the quality, timeliness and appropriateness of food aid, reports Daniel Maxwell, PhD, research director for Food Security and Complex Emergencies at the Feinstein International Center (FIC), part of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University. In a forthcoming policy briefing paper from FIC, as well as an article in the journal Disasters, Maxwell outlines emerging best-practice standards for areas including information systems, analytical tools, and strategic targeting.

Information systems are essential for converting program planning to an analysis-driven process rather than a resource-driven process, notes Maxwell, who is also an associate professor at the Friedman School. "Analyzing food security in a more holistic way will allow us to broaden responses beyond just food," he says. "An integrated information system that incorporates analysis of baseline vulnerabilities of households, monitors household trends, and considers alternative responses will provide the evidence base for improved decision making and for planning a more appropriate humanitarian response.

"Since the famine in Sahel over 30 years ago, information systems have emphasized early warning before a crisis. This is important, but even if well-documented, early warning alone has proven inadequate to plan a response." Maxwell stresses the importance of continual contextual monitoring and periodic program evaluation. He also highlights the need to separate information systems from operational budgets in order to maintain objectivity and impartiality about information gathered.

In addition to improving information systems, better tools and methods are needed to plan aid responses that may include not only food, but may also include the provision of complementary resources, such as water or cash. New analytical tools not only track trends in food security, but also help to predict both positive and negative consequences of interventions. "One of the potential negative consequences of poorly managed food aid is the impact of food aid on local markets," says Maxwell. "We are making progress toward better market analysis that may limit, if not eliminate, the negative effects of food aid programming on these markets."

One way to preserve the integrity of markets is to employ the best-practice standards of targeting humanitarian assistance better. "As food aid is a scarce resource, targeting allows for maximum impact by ensuring that proper quantities of food aid reach appropriate beneficiaries at appropriate times," says Maxwell. "In addition to providing aid for those who need it, good targeting helps to prevent the unintended consequences of food aid -- displaced trade or production incentives, or labor market distortions -- by not providing food aid for those who don't need it." Maxwell discusses various methods of targeting that identify vulnerable populations -- and involving those populations in both the identification of appropriate interventions, and the targeting of these interventions. Later this year Maxwell and Helen Young, PhD, research director of Nutrition and Livelihoods at FIC and professor at the Friedman School, along with FIC researcher John Burns, will begin new research on involving communities in targeting in complex emergencies.

Maxwell acknowledges that implementing best-practice standards is a difficult process. "Improving analysis and tying this analysis to improved program design, implementation and monitoring or evaluation sounds like straightforward, good programming in any kind of humanitarian or developmental intervention but -- given the myriad of contextual factors, local government restrictions and donor politics, not to mention complex logistical considerations and the relative inflexibility of food as a resource -- it is often anything but a straightforward exercise to improve programming on the ground." Despite the challenges, Maxwell maintains that adopting best-practice standards will help the humanitarian community to link food aid programs to broader interventions and policy changes, thus increasing the likelihood they will benefit individuals and communities in both the immediate circumstances of crisis, but also in the longer term.

References: Maxwell, D, Sim A, Mutonyi M, Egan R. Forthcoming Feinstein International Center Policy Briefing Paper. "Emergency Food Security Interventions: A State of the Art Review" ((forthcoming).

Maxwell, D. Disasters. 2007 (March);31(S1): S25-S39. "Global Factors Shaping the Future of Food Aid: the Implications for WFP."

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Materials provided by Tufts University, Health Sciences. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

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