WFP, agro-governance and food security…the Zimbabwe question

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THE world over, every government is constitutionally mandated to feed its people.  

The right to food is, thus, a basic human right giving rise to such agencies as the United Nations Human Rights Commission (HRC), the World Food Programme (WFP), and various other UN agencies that work towards sustainable agriculture for the alleviation of hunger.  Among these agencies are: The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the International Fund for Agriculture Development (IFAD).

Zimbabwe, being signatory to the UN Charter, makes it incumbent on our Government to take up its primary responsibility of ensuring sustainable food security for all its citizens. 

The ‘Zunde raMambo’ agricultural concept, to which I have referred to on many previous occasions, was a wholly Zimbabwean traditional agro-scientific concept that ensured food security for all the people because it was made to take care of the vagaries of the weather and ensure adequate surplus food supplies for the entire region, especially in times of hardships,  such as  droughts and pestilence.  

In fact, archaeological history testifies that Africa had a well-developed agro-industrial base well before Europe, and that the Munhumutapa Dynasty had developed a sophisticated, sustainable agro-economic system from the soils of our very nation. 

In Zimbabwe, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has aggravated the already severe climate and recession-induced food security crisis, threatening a staggering percentage of the population. 

Though there is the misconception that the poor needing food assistance live in rural areas, the impacts of  COVID-19  on food security and nutrition in urban areas is dire.  Here, even before the protracted lockdown measures triggered a massive loss of livelihoods, the number of food insecure people was high.  

It was expected to rise, as a result of the pandemic, from 2,2 million to 3,3 million, as the socio-economic consequences of the pandemic became more pronounced and the chronic high food prices remain stubbornly immune to solutions.  

In a pilot urban programme in partnership with UNDP and DFID, the World Food Programme signed a £3,95 million agreement to provide cash-based food assistance to some 116 000 food insecure people, including 97 000 in rural areas and 19 000 in Harare’s suburb of Epworth.

WFP put into effect a Country Strategic Plan (CSP), for 2017-2021, while “…promoting a shift towards resilience-building efforts, which include emphasis on reducing stunting, strengthening social protection systems and empowering smallholder farmers.”

The US$271,3 million Country Strategic Plan (CSP) gave food-insecure people, including refugees, access to food in the most affected districts, enabling them to “…meet their basic food and nutrition requirements during severe seasonal shocks or other disruptions,”  prior to the pandemic.

 COVID-19  lockdown measures led to the shutdown of informal food markets; as a result, most informal workers struggled to find work, and access to food became a major challenge for many urban households.  

As a result, the UN World Food Programme scaled-up its Urban Social Assistance Programme, in August 2020, to reach 326 004 people in 22 vulnerable urban areas, from its target of 292 865 people across 19 urban areas. 

According to Francesca Erdelmann, the UN World Food Programme (WFP), Zimbabwe representative and country director: “…we have expanded our Urban Social Assistance Programme to ease the challenges faced by urban communities, which have been worsened by COVID-19.  We are grateful to USAID for its support in such a time as this.”

Food insecurity is often rooted in poverty and has long-term impact on the ability of families, communities and countries to develop and prosper. Prolonged undernourishment stunts growth, slows cognitive development and increases susceptibility to illness.

The enactment of the Global Food Security Act of 2016 and the Global Food Security Reauthorization Act of 2018 solidified the US government’s continued, bipartisan commitment to reducing hunger, malnutrition and poverty around the world. As part of this effort, USAID scaled-up a comprehensive approach to fighting hunger and strengthening food security by:

l leading America’s ‘Feed the Future’ initiative to strengthen agriculture-led growth, nutrition and resilience in collaboration with multiple US government agencies and departments, the private sector, civil society, researchers and universities, and partner governments.

l providing emergency food assistance so vulnerable populations and malnourished can survive and bounce back in times of crisis.

Since Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980, the US has invested nearly $3,2 billion in Zimbabwe through initiatives to increase food security, support economic resilience, improve health outcomes and promote democratic governance. 

According to the UN World Food Programme (WFP), widespread poverty in Zimbabwe, as a result of limited employment opportunities, liquidity challenges, recurrent climate-induced shocks, economic instability and HIV/AIDS contributed to limiting adequate access to food for the people of Zimbabwe, including those living in urban areas, who today also face the challenge of renewed power cuts.

The UN World Food Programme, operational in Zimbabwe since the 1980s, is the world’s leading humanitarian agency.  It works to enable food-insecure people, including refugees, in the most affected countries to meet their basic food and nutrition requirements during severe seasonal shocks or other emergencies, which can escalate to crisis level. 

Their objective is to improve access to food and ensure that vulnerable people consume an adequate and nutritious diet in times of need.

Following a strategic rethink in the late 2000s, the agency has evolved to combine frontline action with the quest for durable solutions. This has seen the World Food Programme (WFP) shift from the concept of food aid to that of food assistance.

While food aid is a tried and tested model, proudly woven into the history of the UN World Food Programme, the programme sprang from an unidirectional, top-down vision of a people who were hungry and WFP fed them. 

Food assistance, by contrast, involves a more complex understanding of people’s long-term nutritional needs and of the diverse approaches required to meet them. This conceptual shift has been at the core of the World Food Programme’s transformation in recent years – according to Francesca Erdelmann

Recognising that hunger does not occur in a vacuum, the WFP shifted attention to concentrate time, resources and efforts on the most vulnerable in society, which should include widows and pensioners in low density areas, whose pensions have been eroded overtime.  

“This implies not just emergency interventions, but tailored, multi-year support programmes designed to lift a whole nation’s nutritional indicators by balancing the immediate urgency to alleviate hunger with the broader objective of ending hunger once and for all,” said Erdelmann

Food assistance becomes part of a policy mix for the WFP that advances social wellbeing in general, in line with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, particularly with Goal 2, the WFP considers the quality as well as the quantity of food, with emphasis on nutritiousness and seasonality.  

Crucially, food assistance enlists beneficiaries as actors: it gives them a voice and, wherever possible, a choice in what food they receive and how they receive it. 

This last principle has been steadily gaining prominence for WFP, which helps to explain why, over the last decade, ‘in-kind’ food assistance (the only type there was until the mid-2000s) has partly given way to cash-based transfers.

‘Cash’, for the WFP involves physical bank notes, vouchers or electronic funds being given to beneficiaries to spend directly. Empowering people to meet their essential needs is a long-haul process. 

From US$10 million, transferred in 2009, to US$2,1 billion in 2019, cash now represents over a third of all the WFP’s assistance.  With its benefits of flexibility, efficiency and beneficiary choice, cash is growing rapidly within their hunger-fighting portfolio.

 “The United States remains committed to the people of Zimbabwe. In addition to the US$10 million we have provided to support the cash transfers for over 103 700 vulnerable Zimbabweans in eight urban areas, we are providing over US$60 million to support food distributions for nearly one million people in rural areas during the current lean season. During the pandemic, we will continue to prioritise our critical health and humanitarian assistance activities,” said USAID/Zimbabwe mission director Art Brown.

The WFP foresees that both, ‘cash’ and ‘in-kind’ are likely to co-exist for the foreseeable future, with the World Food Programme increasingly adept at using them singly, alternately or jointly in any given setting.  But with its benefits of flexibility, efficiency and beneficiary choice, cash is growing rapidly within their hunger-fighting portfolio. 

 In fact, both cash and in-kind assistance are expected to co-exist for the foreseeable future – especially as the COVID-19 virus persists and is projected to circulate for one or two more years, the worst effects of the pandemic are yet to be felt.

Economic instability, volatility, poor rainfall, crop pests and livestock as well as crop diseases undermined food security in Zimbabwe. 

Additionally, escalating prices, especially on food and currency shortages, severely impacted poor households’ livelihood opportunities and significantly worsened food insecurity on the back of COVID-19.

Was the one-billion-dollar drawing facility by the World Bank not intended to cushion Zimbabwean citizens and farmers from the ravages and trauma of COVID-19, price- hikes and food insecurity? 

Dr Tony M. Monda BSc, DVM, is currently conducting Veterinary epidemiology, Agronomy and Food Security and Agro-economic research in Zimbabwe. He also holds a PhD and a DBA. E-mail: tonym.MONDA@gmail.com 

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