Written by Mari Kangasniemi, Social Protection Officer at FAO, and Jessica Owens, Social Protection Consultant at FAO.
Siloed interventions often fail to address the complex needs of poor rural households. The webinar held on 15 October, 'Linking social protection, agriculture and food security and nutrition: diversifying production and diets' focused on how the coherent integration of services from social protection, agriculture and nutrition sectors can support greater impacts on improving nutrition outcomes for this population.
The session, which was organised by FAO, presented a review of five country Cash+ experiences in linking nutrition-sensitive social protection and agriculture to support improved food security and nutrition with a special focus on healthy diets. The session was moderated by Jessica Owens from FAO, the speaker was independent consultant Andrea L. S. Bulungu, and the panellists were Asel Myrzabekova, Gender and Rural Women's Empowerment Expert, FAO Kyrgyzstan; Marlen Tynaliev, National Project Coordinator, FAO Kyrgyzstan; Susanna Karapetyan, Social Protection Expert, FAO Armenia; Laxon Chinhengo, Programme Development Specialist Pro-Poor agriculture and Social Protection, FAO Lesotho; Fatou Mbaye, Social protection and food security consultant, FAO Senegal and Sylvia Salama Gata, Coordinator of School feeding program, Ministry of Agriculture and Animal Resources (MINAGRI), Rwanda who participated in the capacity of a technical expert on how to link Social Protection, Agriculture and Food Security and Nutrition.
Making healthy diets accessible
The approach that was presented contained three key elements: rural poor households, agriculture and healthy diets.
- Rural poor households: There are stark differences between rural and urban areas in terms of the prevalence of minimum dietary diversity and similarly so across wealth quintiles. We also know that two-thirds of people who are hungry live in rural areas[i].
- Agriculture: Of some 570 million farms in the world, more than 475 million are smaller than 2 hectares. [ii] Many of these poor rural households depend on their agricultural production, which is often used for both self-consumption and income generation, to purchase food and other basic needs.
- Diet is a key factor contributing to malnutrition in all its forms as well as to disease. Diets are important to achieve both good nutrition and health outcomes at all stages of the life cycle. Insufficiently nutrient-dense foods are linked with wasting, stunting and micronutrient deficiencies in early childhood[iii].
Increasing agricultural production and consumption of nutritious foods is a potential route to making healthy diets more affordable and accessible. This is especially true for the poorest households: supporting poor smallholder households to diversify the crops that they grow and foods that they consume can ensure better access to healthy diets.
Coming together to support rural poor households
FAO has been working with governments to enable social protection, agriculture and FSN sectors to come together and support rural poor households to improve their production and diets in order to contribute to better nutrition outcomes. It has been supporting the design and implementation by government and by FAO country offices by using evidence-based context-specific approach. FAO has worked at the policy level to promote greater coherence and linkages between the different sectors and build common understanding and frameworks for different stakeholders to come together. At the programme level, FAO has supported government piloting of the Cash+ approach. Finally, FAO has worked on generating evidence to inform the national policy discussions on coherent approaches to support poor rural households to improve their livelihoods and their diets.
Recent evidence has shown that the integrated approach exemplified by Cash+ programmes can improve agricultural production, income, food security and dietary diversity while at the same time reducing the need for rural households to resort to negative coping mechanisms in response to shocks, including in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The webinar reviewed how this approach was implemented and what lessons can be learned from five country experiences.
Andrea L.S. Bulungu, who is compiling a compendium of these pilots, explained that projects integrating several sectors have become more common than was the case before. However, there is little guidance on how to make integrated projects work to strengthen their impact on nutrition outcomes. While malnutrition is a result of multiple interacting causes, improving diets is a key intermediate outcome to improve nutrition. Poor rural households depend on their own agricultural production for home-consumption and income generation. To improve diets, social protection and agricultural interventions are crucial elements. Increasing poor households’ production diversity could improve dietary diversity, but this is not guaranteed
She presented an overview of the pilots that was centered around a food-based approach. The pilot programmes presented in the webinar all built on national regular cash transfers in addition to other supports to enhance impacts on diets. Critically, they were developed via a participatory, iterative, multi-stakeholder process. Both the contents of the intervention and the delivery platforms were adapted to the local contexts. They were of short duration but managed nevertheless to attain meaningful effects.
The webinar highlighted several factors of success in these projects. First, is the establishment of a multi-stakeholder working group that continued to meet throughout the pilot. For example, in Senegal, a working group was created by a government decree, including ministerial focal points, mayors, prefects and sub-prefects, technical staff and civil society organizations engaged in food security and nutrition. Furthermore, the pilot designs were informed by formative research. The research was used to define either a set of packages for different households or a single package that was, however, adapted to local conditions.
Using local service delivery platforms was also crucial for pilot success. Existing community systems were used in Lesotho and Rwanda. In Rwanda, such system entailed an existing cadre of community-based caseworkers and leveraged the government-supported model of farmer field schools. By using existing platforms, the projects could better focus limited resources on building capacity. Strong engagement of local authorities was another key factor of success. Across the pilot programmes, local authorities participated as partners in multi-stakeholder working groups and played a key role in delivering the interventions at the ground level.
The speaker also highlighted the role of policy and programme coherence in promoting healthy diets. Each of the pilots incorporated certain nutrition-sensitive principles, including promotion of the production of nutrient-dense food and reduction of post-harvest losses.
Most of the pilots had an objective of improving food security and nutrition that was shared across all partners. There was often a lead agency with a strong interest in the results. Cross-sectoral collaboration, engagement of key stakeholders and involvement of policy-makers responsible for nutrition was also important. Most of the pilots engaged at least one such entity. The pilots provided a forum for dialogue that helped create a shared understanding of the role of agriculture and social protection and how they jointly contribute to the attainment of the objectives.
The panellists provided additional insights into the discussion. Sylvia Salama Gata highlighted three challenges: coordination of stakeholders, capacity gaps of the sectors at several levels and budget gaps. She brought up the example of school feeding programmes that also provide market opportunities for local farmers. In such programmes, there are, however, barriers to smallholder farmers’ participation in the procurement of school food, due to existing procurement laws that are highly competitive. Accessibility can be extremely challenging in some of the poorest rural areas during rainy seasons among others: all relevant stakeholders should therefore be brought together in the planning stage of the programme to ensure schools provide sustainable markets and, thus, incentives for the production of nutritious food for the community, thereby contributing to farmers’ income generation.
Fatou Mbaye explained that in Senegal, as the first step FAO assessed the national cash transfer programme, Programme National de Bourses de Sécurité Familiale (PNBSF). The next step was to strengthen the capacity and knowledge of different actors in order to operationalize coherence at national and decentralized levels. She also highlighted the importance of intersectoral coordination and involvement of local actors as key drivers of success in the implementation of the Nutrition-Sensitive Social Protection. At the inception of the pilot, all stakeholders were brought together in a planning session. The regional working group of all relevant stakeholders planned and coordinated the implementation, as well as the design of the packages. The role of the working group is also to discuss and address any challenges encountered. The key is to build on what already exists to implement the activities and deliver efficiently.
Laxon Chinhengo told about another integrated project in Lesotho, inspired by the Linking Food Security to Social Protection Programme pilot that is included in the compendium, the Sustainable Poverty Reduction through Income, Nutrition and Access to Government Services (SPRINGS). In the context of this project, coordination was clearly stronger at District and sub-district structures, including at community levels. Communities came together to support the project, which greatly facilitated the work of the extension officers who provided guidance on gardening activities. Strengthening integration and attaining coherence are more challenging at the national level, and food security and social protection policies should highlight synergies between different sectors. Dialogue at the national level is also needed to bring together social protection and agriculture.
Marlen Tynaliev highlighted that the Cash+project funded by the Russian Federation in Kyrgyzstan generated meaningful results and helped low-income rural families. The best practices learnt from the pilot have also contributed to the National Food Security and Nutrition programme, and the results are feeding into other policies and modalities that are being developed to reduce the impacts of COVID-19 epidemic. In Kyrgyzstan food security is high on the agenda, despite being a relatively new concept in the country. There are a few matters to take into account in food security and nutrition programming, such as ensuring representation of the private sector and civil society, engagement and transparency. Awareness of food waste and safety and capacity building are also important areas of work, the latter including for example development of training programmes and materials that can be integrated into university degree programmes.
Asel Myrzabekova emphasized that to promote coherence between agriculture, nutrition training and social services, the challenges with capacity need to be resolved. For example, developing methodologies for “case management” work has been relevant in Kyrgyzstan but it is demanding and time-consuming; it is important to get local support personnel (a full-time job) to commit to this type of work, which requires adequate specialised training and personnel. This means that not only capacity building needs to be all-encompassing, but also requires the introduction of structural changes, for example in the education and training system, as well as clear job descriptions on “case management” work are often required for the psycho-social support to be implemented successfully.
Susanna Karapetyan pointed out that coordination is very important in integrated social protection and agricultural interventions. One of the most challenging issues in designing the pilot in Armenia was the targeting of beneficiaries. FAO worked on targeting with the stakeholders and chose transparent and simple criteria. It was obvious that the broader target group, recipients of cash transfers, included rather heterogeneous households. Some already have a reasonable level of capacity, whereas others would need much more intensive support. The focus of coaching activities should be on these groups, and it should be more intensive for them. Coordination in the Armenian context did not present a major challenge and the project managed to address some of the barriers to better diets. Overall, such projects should focus on generating sustainable improvements.
The webinar finished with a lively Q&A session. Watch it here.
[iii]Development Initiatives, 2018. 2018 Global Nutrition Report: Shining a light to spur action on nutrition. Bristol, UK: Development Initiatives.. https://globalnutritionreport.org/reports/global-nutrition-report-2018/w...