A desperate and largely unknown humanitarian crisis is deteriorating in the Lake Chad Basin region of West Africa, forcing millions of people to flee their homes and leaving millions more in need of humanitarian assistance. Oxfam is providing life-saving support but help is urgently needed to prevent the crisis turning into a catastrophe.
In addition to investing in agriculture, national governments can do much to build resilience and reduce vulnerability.
1. Invest in climate change adaptation
Perhaps the most urgent task for national governments is to help communities adapt to climate change by reducing vulnerability and climate-proofing infrastructure. As a priority, developing country governments must map vulnerability and develop national adaptation plans that prioritize the most vulnerable people. These efforts must be matched by support from the international community – in the form of new and additional public finance.
Box 9: Successful adaptation to climate change in Thailand
In 2007 farmers in Yasothorn Province, north-east Thailand, experienced the longest dry spell during a rainy season in decades. Yasothorn, one of the ten poorest provinces in the country, is part of the ‘Weeping Plain’, named for its barren landscape. The plain’s dry conditions have made it suitable for growing fragrant jasmine rice.
The drought was part of a trend. Rainfall records show rains arriving later and later each year, caused at least in part by climate change. Working with local organization Earth Net Foundation (ENF), Oxfam initiated a pilot climate change adaptation project involving 57 men and women from the 509 organic farming households in the province.
Participants received full information on the state of climate change in Yasothorn, and shared ideas about how to adapt. They then designed their own on-farm water management systems, including storage ponds, wells, ditches, sprinkler systems, and pumps – and built them with help from a small ENF loan fund. The farmers also grew vegetables and planted fruit trees.
The following year, Yasothorn was again hit by drought – the ‘worst in 57 years’, according to one village elder. Excessive rainfall then drowned much of the remaining crops at harvest time. The project farms’ overall rice production fell by almost 16 per cent – but things were worse on non-participating farms, where production fell by 40 per cent overall.
2. Expand social protection
At the height of the 2008 food price spike, many developing country governments – faced with spiralling hunger and discontent – reached for policy options that only made the problem worse. Forty-six developing countries used economy-wide subsidies or price controls to try to contain food prices – responses that can reduce the incentives for food producers to increase output, or place crippling burdens on government budgets.128
Social protection programmes tailored to the specific national context can target resources to the most vulnerable people, which are likely to include women and rural producers more generally. In the most sophisticated cases, like Brazil’s very successful Fome Zero (Zero Hunger) programme, different approaches are blended into a massive across-the-board push to reduce hunger. Ultimately, governments should aim to establish universal programmes, which tend to be more efficient and by definition protect more people.
Today only 20 per cent of the world’s people enjoy access to social protection of any kind – a scandalous gap, yet an improvement upon the situation only a few years ago, largely due to the expansion of provision in China and Brazil.129 Even in these cases, the measures often lack permanence. The big gaps are in low-income countries, where social protection tends to be donor-led pilot programmes rather than nationally owned approaches.
Predictable funding from aid donors, in the form of direct budgetary support, would allow governments to implement national programmes. Technical support may also be necessary but, critically, approaches must fit specific national circumstances, as there are few off-the-shelf solutions.
Without leadership from within government, no amount of donor support will deliver effective social protection. All too often, politicians shy away from ambitious programmes for fear of long-term fiscal commitments (ignoring the broader economic benefits that will be delivered) or worry that they will simply create dependency (which is not supported by the evidence).130
A shared goal, for governments and international institutions, should be universal access to a basic level of social protection sufficient to realise fundamental economic and social rights, including the right to food. The UN Social Protection Floor Initiative131 provides a perfect platform around which to coalesce.
3. Develop integrated hunger strategies
Growth is not necessarily inclusive. One of the reasons India has failed to tackle hunger so spectacularly despite impressive growth is because job creation and rising incomes were not broad-based (see Box 7). Recent research indicates that the majority of the world’s poor people live not in the poorest countries, but in middle-income ones132 – left behind by the economic ‘miracles’ that have driven average incomes higher and higher.
Viet Nam chose a different path, developing a national Hunger Eradication and Poverty Reduction Programme in 1998 to eliminate chronic hunger and reduce inequality. By 2010, the country had halved hunger levels – achieving the first Millennium Development Goal five years ahead of schedule.133 The take-off started earlier, however, with land reform and the pursuit of agricultural development as a means to provide a critical ‘growth spark’ for a move into labour-intensive manufacturing and broader industrialization. It worked: previously a rice importer, Viet Nam is now the second biggest exporter in the world and the poverty rate has plummeted, from 58 per cent in 1993 to 18 per cent in 2006.134
Today, such national strategies for job creation and inclusive growth must be integrated with approaches to tackle vulnerability via climate adaptation, social protection, and disaster risk reduction.