Food Assistance (Intersections Winter 2016)

The articles in this issue of Intersections explore a variety of themes around the topic of food assistance. Food assistance remains a significant part of MCC’s international program, particularly through MCC’s account at Canadian Foodgrains Bank. This introductory article previews some of the topics in this issue while also exploring two overall themes: first, the emergence of various food assistance modalities (cash, vouchers, food) and the importance of gender analysis in making decisions about the appropriate modalities in different contexts; and second, the need for predictable, timely and adequate social protection to prevent conflict and hunger.

As we approach the World Humanitarian Summit to be held in Istanbul, Turkey in May 2016, humanitarian actors are increasingly pushing to increase the amount of humanitarian assistance provided in the form of cash transfers, and rightly so. Over the last decade, development research has demonstrated that cash transfers increase the dignity and empowerment for crisis-affected people by allowing them to prioritize their own particular household needs and priorities. As Stuart Clark indicates in his article, an acceptance of providing food assistance in the forms of food vouchers and cash transfers is increasingly widespread.

MCC has increased the amount of assistance provided in the form of cash transfers and vouchers as it has worked with partners to respond to disasters in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Haiti, Afghanistan, Ethiopia and Myanmar. Several articles in this issue provide examples of food assistance projects involving vouchers and cash transfers in Lebanon, Ethiopia and Colombia. In contrast to these examples, Darrin Yoder provides an overview of MCC’s canned meat program, arguing that there is still a place for in-kind food assistance.

There is a growing consensus that cash transfers should become the default modality of providing all forms of humanitarian assistance: that is, the default question now seems to be “Why not cash?” This reflects a broader adoption of cash transfers and vouchers in all forms of humanitarian assistance, including vouchers for shelter materials, fuel, rent assistance and other essential non-food items (e.g. hygiene items, cooking utensils and bedding). People affected by disaster should be able to buy what they need and therefore humanitarian actors should provide affected people with “multipurpose cash.” To the outsider, the need to preface cash with multi-purpose must seem both redundant and absurd. Yet, the humanitarian aid architecture remains sectorally compartmentalized, with aid agencies having discreet mandates and required to report on end use (i.e. food, shelter and non-food items).

How do we determine the best modality for delivering humanitarian assistance? Following the Nepal earthquake earlier this year, an assessment agency representative asked other agencies in the Kathmandu coordinating meeting whether NGOs had any market assessment information from the earthquake-affected locations to determine whether cash assistance was appropriate: Are food and temporary shelter materials available in the area? Are markets functioning? What is the inflation on basic goods?

Market assessments have now become a key, if not primary, criteria in project rationale and design. Yet, in the stampede toward cash transfers, we seem to have forgotten about a less sophisticated, yet primary, assessment method: ask people what they need. And perhaps more importantly: ask women.

In many contexts where MCC works, including the Middle East and South Asia, when project participants are asked about their preference for food or cash transfers, women repeatedly report that they prefer in-kind food assistance or food vouchers. Women are often the ones in the household who make decisions on and control food resources, while men control cash. The evidence suggests that men are less likely than women to spend resources on overall household priorities. The shift away from providing food baskets and food vouchers towards cash transfers could have unintended consequences connected to gender dynamics and control over resources in some contexts.

For Syrian refugees in Jordan and Lebanon, cash transfers have become the default mode of humanitarian assistance. Recent discussions with Canadian government officials indicate that despite the government’s longstanding and strong emphasis on integrating gender equality in the delivery of humanitarian assistance, government officials do not have strong gender analysis to back up their funding priorities. After decades of work on promoting strong gender analysis and results, are we losing our way? In this issue, Vanessa Hershberger and Annie Loewen explore the concept of intrahousehold vulnerability and reflect on the importance of gender analysis.

Regardless of modality, the larger and more pressing concern is to ensure the timeliness, predictability and adequate scale of food transfers. People affected by ongoing conflict and sudden-onset disasters must be able to access assistance that is timely and substantive so they can plan and rebuild. And for the millions of smallholder farmers and farm labourers who face annual and predictable seasonal food insecurity, assistance must be on time and consistent so that they can invest and mitigate the risk of disaster.

During the hunger season, the time when household food stocks are low and food prices are high, farm households have to make many difficult decisions. In addition to providing family members with daily nutritional requirements, these rural households also need to invest in agricultural inputs and labour during their primary growing season. Without assistance, households engage in harmful coping strategies, including reducing food portions and meal frequency, pulling children out of school, selling productive assets or sending household members away to work. During the time of year that requires the largest investment, these households have reduced cash liquidity and labour resources and face acute undernourishment.

The growing prominence of the social protection agenda aims to address the predictable food insecurity of the most vulnerable households. In particular, governments in India, Ethiopia, Mexico and Brazil have moved toward providing predictable safety nets in the form of food or cash transfers to rural households. Not only have these programs allowed households to stabilize their food consumption, they have also prevented the sale of assets under economic duress and enabled households to invest in production and build community and household assets. While there remains a pervasive fear that long-term social transfers can lead to dependency, the evidence suggests otherwise, namely, that the poorest households invest in their future, including in agricultural production and education, while at the same time prioritizing urgent household needs. The key driver of chronic poverty is vulnerability to shocks and stresses such as seasonal hunger. One cannot springboard out of poverty without a safety net; you cannot climb the ladder out of poverty, if every year you get knocked off. Within MCC we continue to prioritize food assistance projects that address seasonal food insecurity in places like Ethiopia, India, Burundi, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Laos. In this issue, Vurayayi Pugeni compares the effectiveness of MCC’s safety net program in Ethiopia with less predictable programming in Zimbabwe.

The reliability of food assistance also plays an important role in preventing conflict. As Kaitlin Heatwole argues in her article, the reliability of food assistance for internally displaced people in Iraq enhances the potential for social cohesion with host communities. While significant uncertainty for agencies working in conflict-affected countries persists, these agencies must move beyond short-term planning horizons, recognizing that ongoing assistance will be required for many years to come as coping mechanisms erode.

Moreover, as Terrence Jantzi observes in his article about internal
displacement and humanitarian assistance in Colombia, food assistance
programs can provide stability for conflict-affected families and also allow for group formation so that displaced people can mobilize to realize their rights. MCC aims to provide predictable and ongoing assistance for conflict affected households in Colombia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Syria and Iraq.

Humanitarian organizations are increasingly using food vouchers and cash
transfers, with reduced reliance on in-kind food assistance. Yet even as this shift takes place, the need for improved gender analysis and more timely and predictable social protection strategies will be essential in order to support families in meeting their food needs.

Bruce N. Guenther is disaster response director for MCC and instructor at
Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg, MB.

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