Global acute hunger  levels are following a seemingly unstoppable upward trend, as we have heared from latest UN and partners’ reports (WFP and FAO, 2022; FAO et. al., 2022). In response to these trends, we are also hearing what must be taken as clarion calls for scaled-up social protection response in the world’s hunger hotspots (UN, 2022).
Yet, while hunger and food insecurity numbers continue to climb, current global humanitarian response funding to food sectors – including food security response and nutrition initiatives – is decreasing.
Even though two-thirds of the world’s hungry live in rural areas – where they overwhelmingly depend on agriculture to make a living – in 2020 less than 8 % of total humanitarian financing went to food sectors, agriculture, and nutrition, including food security response mainly in the form of cash and in-kind social protection assistance (FAO, 2022c). Put another way, humanitarian assistance for agriculture and livelihoods was the least funded of the food sectors, decreasing by over 50 % since 2016 despite rising hunger, which is particularly concentrated in rural and agriculture-dependent communities (2022c).
It is therefore time for smarter use of limited humanitarian funding to food crisis response. Social protection – one of the tools in the global anticipatory action policy toolbox – can help safeguard livelihoods and save lives in a more cost-effective manner.
What is anticipatory action and what does it mean for the world’s hungry?
Anticipatory action refers to innovative thinking in how we manage economic, climate, and humanitarian disasters (Anticipation Hub, 2022a), including those that lead to acute hunger. They aim to systematically connect early warnings to concrete policy and programmatic actions, helping predict the timing and impact of disasters and protect lives and livelihoods ahead of a hazard or risk and before it becomes more costly to recover decimated assets and livelihoods (FAO, 2022a). In doing so, a set of pre-identified actions – such as social protection – can proactively mitigate the impacts of a looming or deteriorating crisis (OCHA, 2021).
From relief to development
Against a backdrop of donor fatigue in responding to competing crises (UN News, 2022), lagging humanitarian support to agriculture as part of food security response (Paulsen, 2022) and calls for preventive financing to acute hunger point to the need for more cost-effective approaches to preventing food crises (UN ECOSOC, 2021).
Anticipatory action needs to be a bigger part of the equation, and within the global anticipatory action toolbox, social protection in particular stands to move the global acute hunger response compass away from after-the-fact relief toward long-term resilience for development (OCHA, 2022). Still, there is work ahead of us if we are to leverage the full potential of social protection ahead and in the midst of food crises.
What do social protection practitioners need to focus on?
1. Investing in early warning systems
Early warning systems designed to support rural and agricultural communities can take the form of systems that capture precipitation and forest coverage data ahead of an impending drought (FAO, 2022b). Along the same lines, early warnings can be mechanisms that monitor food prices and agricultural yields to safeguard food security in areas already battling chronic hunger or recurrent malnutrition (AMIS, 2022). Early warnings may even work to monitor migration and displacement trends ahead of, or during, looming hunger that may force people to abandon their lands (IOM, 2022), in turn adding pressure on limited resources elsewhere.
As such, early warning systems can rely on surveys, remote sensing mechanisms, and geographic and information systems (GIS) technologies that capture this valuable information and help social protection practitioners interpret it accordingly (i.e., triggering social protection benefits or payouts).
Whatever the design of the early warning system in place, social protection as an anticipatory action needs to form part of a bigger umbrella of actions. These actions must include investments to establish and scale up existing early warning platforms and mechanisms that can trigger the delivery of programmes and benefits ahead of a looming economic, climate, or humanitarian shock. In the absence of these anticipary actions, shocks can rapidly lead to hunger and lost assets and lives, especially among rural communities.
In turn, humanitarian funding needs to look beyond the immediate needs of people, and also prioritise and build up the policy, programmatic, and technological capacities that countries – and other humanitarian actors – need in order to monitor, assess, and disseminate the metrics that will inform the response ahead of a next crisis. It is about recognising the need for a balance between crisis response and longer-term development approaches to help prevent a next catastrophe and its debilitating impacts on livelihoods (Ghorpade and Ammar, 2021).
That said, social protection as an anticipatory action, builds on the evidence on how providing the right support helps build up three household resilience capacities: absorptive, adaptive, and anticipatory (Costella et. al., 2017). This means that social protection stands to play a role in ongoing emergencies during which households need to cope and adapt, as well as during a next shock, ahead of which households need to plan and prepare accordingly.
2. Integrated (digital) social and programme beneficiary registries
An overarching challenge is that social protection programmes tend to be working in siloes focused on very specific niche population groups, as opposed to forming part of a wider social protection system that helps people receive support that touches on the various dimensions of vulnerability and exposure to risks and hazards.
Having social protection programmes that speak to each other and work as one – especially in crisis contexts or in countries with nascent or entirely absent programmes of their own, or with multiple humanitarian actors delivering many social protection benefits in parallel – is more cost effective, more inclusive of at-risk populations, and better at supporting people cope with different types of needs.
Smarter humanitarian response in food crisis contexts is not only about delivering more aid and support with less money. It is also about having a clear idea of who the social protection beneficiary and non-beneficiary population is (World Bank, 2020). Knowing the latter is especially important to providing timely social protection responses, as this group could very well become at risk, following a shock.
In turn, social registries and beneficiary registries need to speak to each other, preventing each government authority and implementing partner from having their own registries. First off, it is vital to be able to cross-reference the target or intended population groups vis-à-vis the current beneficiary population (Berner and Hamelryck, 2021). Taking this one step further, knowing who the currently at-risk and the potentially at-risk populations are, and being able to swiftly “move” someone from the latter to the former list so they can receive social protection benefits is a vital, time-sensitive practice that requires financing, political will, and a systems-based understanding to social protection.
Integrated social and beneficiary registries, for instance, can (i) enable social protection programmes to be linked to agricultural livelihood protection and rehabilitation initiatives, supporting the poorest and most food insecure, who are predominantly working in agriculture; (ii) facilitate cash top-ups on existing cash transfer benefits, ahead of or during an existing food crisis; (iii) expand benefits to new beneficiaries not currently experiencing hunger but very likely to suffer from it in the face of inaction today; and (iv) contribute to a more holistic delivery of support mechanisms and aid that, together, can act as a type of social protection floor – or minimum level of support – that helps vulnerable households cope with different, yet interlinked risks that threaten their ability to feed themselves, both today and moving forward.
3. Targeting: favouring a multidimensional poverty or vulnerability approach
In order for early warning systems and integrated registries to respond to the various needs and vulnerabilities of at-risk populations, we must discuss the need for better, more inclusive targeting.
Yet, even with comprehensive and up-to-date social registries, it is not sufficient to properly address the drivers of hunger (i.e., conflict, climate change, inequality, poverty, among others) if the way people’s needs and exposure to future risks are only measured in income or monetary terms. This means that multidimensional data is vital if we are to properly inform a social protection response after a shock (World Bank, 2020), in much the same way it is vital to inform policies ahead of a looming shock that will worsen hunger levels. In other words, multidimensional targeting methods are a pillar in ensuring that social protection serves as a risk-management (Anticipation Hub, 2022b).
As we saw before, the world’s hungry are overwhelmingly rural, tend to work in agriculture, and capture incomes in the informal sector. They experience poverty in terms of lack of economic means, but also in terms of lacking information, knowledge, education, finance, and agency, among other ailments. As such, in order to step away from poverty assessments or targeting practices that fail to capture the diversity of needs of rural communities (FAO and OPHI, 2022), understanding hunger as the product of multidimensional poverty or multidimensional vulnerability is a vital cornerstone of social protection being anticipatory, adaptive, and preventive in nature, in addition to reactive and reconstructive.
Moving the needle on preventive, data-driven social protection
All in all, social protection as an anticipatory action can be about using cash and input transfers, for instance, to protect livelihoods and prevent negative coping mechanisms from which it will be far more costly to recover. Losing harvests and livestock, missing key planting periods, and selling off productive assets in exchange for food are but a small sample of outcomes that social protection can help prevent, in order to curb rising hunger levels in the face of recurrent shocks.
Instead of only delivering cash and food rations once people have been made poor, hungry, and devoid of productive assets, social protection response – informed by forecasts, predictions, and outlooks – stand a better chance at curbing hunger and fully fledged crises before they escalate to untenable proportions and far more costly reponses.
- Agricultural Market Information System (AMIS). 2022. “Market Monitor – Agricultural Market Information System (AMIS).” Agricultural Market Information System (AMIS), AMIS Secretariat, 2022, http://www.amis-outlook.org/amis-monitoring/monthly-report/en/
- Anticipation Hub. 2022a. “Learning Resources about Anticipatory Action.” What Is Anticipatory Humanitarian Action? - Learning Resources, Anticipation Hub, 2022, https://www.anticipation-hub.org/learn/learning-resources.
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 Acute hunger, or acute food insecurity, refers to households facing Crisis, Emergency, or Famine levels of food insecurity, according to the Integrated Phase Classification (IPC), a landmark in the fight against food insecurity that is widely accepted by the international community to determine the scale of food emergencies (FEWS NET, 2022).