Earlier this week, riots erupted over food prices in several Algerian cities – according to Reuters, prices for flour and salad oil there have doubled over the past few months. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s food price index is now slightly higher than it was during the last global food crisis in 2008, though the New York Times’ William Neuman points out that the absence of inflation adjustments makes a direct comparison tricky. The overall situation isn’t as bad as it was in 2008, but whether the world tips over the edge into another full-blown crisis depends largely on upcoming grain harvests. Neuman explains:

Countries in central, western and southern Africa have had generally good harvests from crops planted last year, easing reliance on imports. And grain prices remain significantly below the highs they hit in 2007 and 2008. Export prices for rice are 40 to 50 percent below those highs, [FAO economist Abdolreza Abbassian] said.

Grain prices have a much greater impact on the food budgets of people in poor countries than prices for commodities like sugar or meat, which tend to make up a much smaller portion of their diet.

In addition, global supplies of rice and wheat are much more robust today than during the crisis.

But ensuring sufficient grain supplies depends on good harvests this year in major exporting countries. Dry conditions in Argentina that could hurt corn, and soybean crops are worrisome, Mr. Abbassian said. Heavy rains in Australia delayed the wheat harvest there, resulting in a poorer crop. In the United States, harsh, dry weather is expected to hurt the winter wheat crop.

I went to the FAO’s website for more details, and their recent report on global food insecurity makes it clear that spikes in grain prices are far from the only concern. While some countries experience intermittent problems with food shortages, there are 22 countries in “protracted crisis,” where the incidence of hunger is high and persistent.

In some cases, the protracted crisis description applies only to a specific geographic area of the country – for instance, the northern and northeastern parts of Uganda. The crisis situations may be natural or human-induced or a combination of the two, such as when a country lacks the institutional capacity to respond to recurrent natural disasters. The FAO cites the Humanitarian Policy Group’s definition of protracted crises as

…those environments in which a significant proportion of the population is acutely vulnerable to death, disease and disruption of livelihoods over a prolonged period of time. The governance of these environments is usually very weak, with the state having a limited capacity to respond to, and mitigate, the threats to the population, or provide adequate levels of protection.

And these are the countries the report lists as being in protracted crisis situations:

  • Afghanistan
  • Angola
  • Burundi
  • Central African Republic
  • Chad
  • Congo
  • Côte d’Ivoire
  • Democratic People’s Republic of Korea
  • Democratic Republic of the Congo
  • Eritrea
  • Ethiopia
  • Guinea
  • Haiti
  • Iraq
  • Kenya
  • Liberia
  • Sierra Leone
  • Somalia
  • Sudan
  • Tajikistan
  • Uganda
  • Zimbabwe

In the case of a short-term crisis – for instance, a flood or earthquake that seriously disrupts the food supply – aid organizations can provide food (along with other assistance) for a period of time while the country rebuilds. In such cases, it’s expected that the country will essentially get back to where it was before the disaster struck. But when an earthquake hits a place like Haiti, the disaster is worsening a situation that was bad to begin with, and hopes for a quick recovery prove unrealistic.

Adapting in Protracted Crises
People do adapt to situations of protracted crisis, but the report points out that these changes have repercussions. Some adaptations can be sustainable – for instance, livestock traders in Darfur altered the routes by which they transported their animals to avoid areas of conflict, and fisherfolk in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s North Kivu region shifted from fishing to farming when institutional disintegration caused Lake Edward to be overfished.

Often, though, adaptations lead to other challenges over the long term. Too-rapid migration from unsafe rural areas to urban centers can overwhelm labor markets and lead to conflicts between groups that had previously coexisted peacefully. Shifts in livelihoods can cause excessive demands on the natural resources involved – for instance, in Darfur, more people have come to depend on grass and firewood collection, competition over limited resources has intensified.

In addition to providing immediate food assistance, aid organizations can help people protect their livelihoods – for instance, FAO reports that NGOs helped provide food, care, and space for donkeys owned by displaced persons in Darfur, who relied on the animals for transportation and to carry water and firewood. Where protracted conflicts make it hard for people to retain their previous livelihoods, they can benefit from training or other assistance to help them find new ways to earn a living. FAO notes that aid organizations often fail to anticipate the need for this kind of assistance, and should begin considering long-term livelihood promotion once an emergency has been contained.

The report also highlights the role of local socio-economic and institutional arrangements, which may remain intact even when national institutions weaken or emerge from a crisis situation when the national government can’t provide what residents need. Organizations seeking to assist local communities are likely to be more successful if they work with existing local groups. For instance, FAO describes the UN’s Operation Lifeline Sudan, which had little success with an initial campaign to control rinderpest (a viral disease in cattle) and achieved much better results once it started using a community-based approach involving informal pastoralist associations and elders’ groups.

The Role of International Aid
Humanitarian food aid is crucial for keeping people alive and preventing malnutrition. In recent years, humanitarian organizations have made an effort to shift food assistance away from the distribution of imported food and toward the use of cash or vouchers that can be used to purchase food locally, in order to support agriculture in the affected countries. (Where local supplies are inadequate, organizations still bring in food for distribution.) The World Food Program is buying more food from low-income farmers and makes 80% of its purchases in developing countries, FAO notes.

Development aid, which supports longer-term economic growth, is a separate category. Although countries in protracted crises rely on development assistance for a large share of their public expenditures, FAO reports that these countries receive a relatively small share of all development assistance, and only a sliver of that aid goes to agriculture and education, which are key to achieving long-term food security. There’s room for improving both the amount and type of development aid given and the linkages between short-term and long-term assistance.

The report concludes with three recommendations:

  • Support further analysis and deeper understanding of people’s livelihoods and coping mechanisms in protracted crises in order to strengthen their resilience and enhance the effectiveness of assistance programmes
  • Support the protection, promotion and rebuilding of livelihoods, and the institutions that support and enable livelihoods, in countries in protracted crisis
  • Revisit the architecture of external assistance in protracted crises to match the needs, challenges and institutional constraints on the ground. This could entail the organization of a High-Level Forum on protracted crises followed by the development of a new “Agenda for Action” for countries in protracted crisis

I wish the report had said more about the protracted crisis the whole world is facing: climate change. The term comes up only in the context of a single project in Haiti, which integrates “emergency relief (agricultural inputs) with identified good practice in
disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation.” In the coming years, we’re going to see many more people who can no longer grow the same crops in the same ways they’re used to – something that’s likely to both contribute to more protracted crises and make emerging from them more of a challenge.