17/10/2013 12:04 BST | Updated 15/12/2013 05:12 GMT

The Role of Resilience in Achieving Food and Nutrition Security

When countries face crises, such as droughts, floods and famines, it can leave thousands, sometimes millions of people, without access to food or livelihoods. When this happens organisations, countries and governments from all over the world (often, but not all the time) rally together to provide life-saving emergency assistance, usually in the form of food aid. However, irrespective of the fact we react to a crisis, we have already failed. An emergency response is a categorical failure of prevention.

While we should continue to respond and provide relief when emergencies arise, more needs to be done to understand and strengthen the long-term development interventions that reduce vulnerability to natural and manmade shocks. Every £1 spent on prevention saves £7 in emergency aid and would prevent the suffering and loss of countless lives.

Why build resilience?

The 2013 Global Hunger Index (GHI) report - the eighth in the series - focuses on building resilience as a means of achieving food and nutrition security.

Famines, droughts and floods strike numerous countries every year. Yet some countries fare better than others when confronted by stresses and shocks. While the reasons why are not fully understood, it has been proposed that some countries and communities are more resilient than others, while others find themselves locked in a cycle of poverty, hunger and undernutrition, largely due to their inability to avoid or cope with shocks and stressors, such a floods, spikes in food prices, or civil unrest.

For some households and communities lacking resilience, even temporary shocks can have long-term consequences. For instance, a poor harvest during a 'lean season' may only temporarily limit a child's food intake. However, this can have longer-term implications on their physical and mental development, ability to learn in school and future earning capacity. Bosco Ogwang, from the Lira District in Uganda, reiterates this; "If children cannot eat enough food, it can be stressful to attend daily classes, study and concentrate. The current food scarcity in the region will affect children's concentration in school and could, if it continues, lead to a higher dropout rate from school."

A severe drought can force families to sell off most of its productive assets, such as land or livestock, in exchange for money that soon disappears. This can plunge families into irreversible poverty. Two years ago, I met and elderly grandfather who was caring for his three orphaned grandchildren, whose parents had died from AIDS-related illnesses the previous year. Despite being well into his 80s he still worked his farm for his livelihood. When I met him his crops had failed for the second time. In order to try and recuperate his losses he sold part of his land to his neighbour. While this provided him with enough money feed and send his grandchildren to school for a couple of months, having sold part of his land meant he was able to grow fewer crops. Where he was once able to grow enough crops for both sale and consumption, there was now only enough land for cash crops, which brought in very little in terms of income. He would often limit himself to one meal a day just to make sure his grandchildren had enough to eat. As a result, he felt he had no option but to sell his goat, which was the families' only source of milk. He was very well aware of the vicious cycle he was in - that he was at risk of eventually selling all of his productive assets just to keep afloat - but he felt completely unable to deal with the shocks any other way.

How are people resilient?

Since disasters, natural and manmade, can impact the food and nutrition security of families and communities, by extension, building their resilience will also involve boosting food and nutrition security. It's important to note that resilience is more than trying to 'go back to the way things were.' It can require making small adjustments or even considerable overhauls.

The GHI report suggests there are three different responses dependent on the intensity of the shock.

  1. The lower the intensity of the shock, the more likely a household or community will be able to absorb the shocks on the livelihoods and basic needs without major change.
  2. Larger shocks may require people to adapt and adjust their responses to the changing external factors. For instance, in order to keep working during a dry season some farmers may experiment with different techniques.
  3. Much larger shocks, however, may require households or communities to completely transform the system or structure in question. Droughts in the Horn of Africa, for instance, mean that pastoralists are unable to rebuild their herds, so may be forced to transition from pastoralism into sedentary agriculture.

Disasters have devastating impacts on the food and nutrition security of families and communities, particularly those who are lacking resilience. Many families, who live in on the edge of security, can be pushed over by even the smallest shock. While resilience is not a 'silver bullet' to food and nutrition security, it is a vital piece of a puzzle to create long-term development within households and communities. It is vital that both the humanitarian and development community work together to identify the building blocks to resilience, understand why some fare better than others in the face of stressors, and use these to inform resilience-building programmes.