Published On  Oct 30,  2011






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Appointed to his position by the United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in 2009, David Nabarro, special representative for food security and nutrition, has brought over 30 years of experience to the world body. Qualified as a physician, he has worked in Iraq, South Asia and East Africa. Aside from serving in the Department of International Development (DFID) of the United Kingdom as director for human development, he has led the World Health Organization’s (WHO) humanitarian response initiative for three years. In this interview with a partnership of African newspapers including Fortune, Sud Quotidien (Senegal), Les Echos du Mali (Mali), Fraternité Matin (Ivory Coast), Le Républicain (Niger) and (Italy), he explains what the world body is doing to resolve food insecurity and malnutrition across the continent. The interview is facilitated by Joshua Massarenti of Afronline and Getachew T. Alemu, OP-ED Editor of Fortune.   








Afronline: The United Nations has dedicated itself to development issues for over 40 years but food security has continued to be a major problem. How do you judge the success of the UN system in terms of ensuring food security in drought prone countries such as Ethiopia and its role in their development?

Food security is a challenge for national governments and what we in the United Nations (UN) do is work with governments to help them address the problem. We do not force them to do anything; it is a partnership between the UN, the government and often regional organisations to address difficult issues.

In the case of Ethiopia, we believe that there has been extraordinary progress, mostly because of the strong relationship between the Ethiopian government and the Comprehensive African Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP), and also between Addis Abeba and development partners like the World Bank and the UN.

We are seeing real progress in food security in Ethiopia, partly because there are improvements in food production and availability of food and because the Safety net programs have helped to ensure that people who are poor get access to food. There are also important results in nutrition.

However, with the government, the people of Ethiopia and other countries in the Horn of Africa, we are still working hard to try to ensure that the resilience of farmers, particularly smallholder farmers is improved; events such as the current drought in the region must lead to more attention to food security in the future. Yes, food security has remained the major problem for the last forty years, but there have been significant improvements thanks to actions taken by the government, regional organisations and the support of development partners and the full engagement of civil society.

Q: Food insecurity is increasingly becoming a challenge for the world and it affects the African continent most of all. Following the food crisis that hit countries in the Sahel in 2009, now it is the Horn of Africa’s turn. The region is affected by the worst food shortage in the world and yet it is a forgotten crisis. In these situations, the International Community only mobilizes once the situation has deteriorated. What justification or explanation can there be for the slow reaction of donors?

In the last ten years there have been some extremely worrying trends that have affected food security in the Horn of Africa. We had a situation where the volatility of food prices created real problems for the local community. We had a number of adverse weather events that had serious effects on the pastoral community in the Sahel and the rest of Africa.

We also had a situation in terms of governments not always being able to respond with safety nets and with programmes for sustainable livelihoods, particularly in Somalia but also in Niger and the Eastern part of Sahel, where the political environment is not always a straightforward one. It is correct to say that in the UN, we had received warning signals of an impending crisis both in Sahel and in the Horn of Africa many months before the major response came through.

This is a major and difficult challenge. When the response does come through, it is always strong on humanitarian assistance, but less strong on activities required to create long term resilience. There is more to be done, and that is one of the reasons why this year, discussions in the G-20 have looked very hard at alert systems and response mechanisms and have come out with proposals to improve them. Donors are constantly being challenged to make sure that they are more able to respond early.

I cannot explain why it hard for them to respond; I think it may be because they need to be sure of the severity of a crisis and the means for mobilising resources. But I think we need to do better, in particular on long-term capacity building rather than short-term life saving. We need a comprehensive approach.

Q: During the food crisis in Niger in 2009, the government accused UN agencies operation on the field of making a business out of starvation. What is your reaction to that kind of accusation?

I have not heard of any humanitarian organisations ever making a business of famine; I do not understand what this means. In my experience, the humanitarian organisations I have been working for are 100pc dedicated to responding to food insecurity. In the Eastern Sahel region, in 2010, and five years before then, there was extreme food insecurity and there was a major humanitarian response.

Now, one of the points that governments sometimes make is that they wish to have greater control over humanitarian organisations. From our point of view, all operations promoted by humanitarian organisations should be undertaken in cooperation with the government.

We also recognise that for internal rules and procedures, these organisations sometimes have to take total control over their resources. The good news is that as the new government of Niger has become more established, the pattern of assistance from the international community tends to support the government rather than sending external resources independently.

Q: Getting back to the Horn of Africa, don’t you think that Somalia and Ethiopia, which are clearly countries at risk of starvation, are reasons enough to force the international community to find other solutions that go beyond indignation and compassion?

I understand the problem you want to raise. But what we had in the case of the current Horn of Africa food crisis, or the flood in Pakistan, or the situation in Sahel, is a very well organised and efficient response; operators that can come into play as soon as the money is available. So we certainly go much further than indignation and compassion.

In fact, our main job is ensuring that lives and livelihoods are saved. Of course, there are those who will say that we should do things differently, but our way of working is always to try to partner with national authorities and support them in their strategies and programmes. There is no alternative, even when the national authority is not strong. In Somalia we are able to work with national authorities in most of the country; where we cannot, we try to find other partners.

Q: So what about Al Shebaab, which controls most of southern and central regions of the country? Why doesn’t the UN work with them in order to send humanitarian aid to areas dominated by the Al Qaeda-affiliated militant group?

There is a great effort to collaborate with local authorities to get relief to affected communities and to ensure the safety of humanitarian workers.

Q: Disaster prevention pundits claim that there is a risk of famine in the Sahel. Has the UN adopted any measures to prevent the inevitable crisis?

There are a number of alerts regarding what we call ‘food insecurity’; we do not use the term ‘famine’ except in very exceptional situations. As much as we can, we are collaborating with national governments so that they have the resilience to be able to respond. At the moment, we are working with the Economic Community of Western African States (ECOWAS) on the establishment of an emergency humanitarian food reserve system that may be able to provide more capacity in the event of food insecurity. Unfortunately, we are still limited by reality. We do not have, within the UN system, big reserves of cash or food to anticipate the kind of crises that are being experienced. We need to move very quickly to mobilise additional resources once a crisis starts to appear. We hope to change this situation over the next two years.

Q: Could you give us more details on the lack of UN resources?

Each year, the World Food Programme (WFP) starts with a balance of zero, and then raises money over the course of the year in order to carry out its activities. Recently it has been impossible for it to have a system to maintain reserves. We have been looking for new ways to finance the WFP in order to predict funding coming in future years, so they can maintain reserves on a multi-year basis. It will happen, but I have to tell you that at the moment, the way we are set up is not ideal for doing the kind of activities we would like to promote on the field.

Q: More generally, what does the UN think will help Africa escape the pernicious cycle of food shortage and drought?

There is clearly a group of countries and a group of geographical areas that are preparing to experience frequent droughts, and therefore, also to have food insecurity. We know where the emergencies are and we are working very closely with national governments and regional organisations to identify the particular groups of people most affected, and to work with them and find out what kind of help we can give.

For example, in the Horn of Africa, we are working very intensively now on helping agro-pastoralists so they are better able to look after their animals; to keep them healthy; have access to markets and also to have protection for households affected by droughts and food insecurity.

In Niger, we are working very hard on more efficient ways to use water, to store it and also to protect land so that when floods do come, the soil is protected. Water and land are our top priorities.

Last but not least, we are also working with farmers’ organisations in order to try to really focus on particular challenges raised by people in dry land areas. We have to recognise that climate is becoming less stable and certain, so the circulation of information is a valuable resource to help reduce the risks of food shortage.

Q: Food insecurity factors rise with exponential growth in Sahel. Don’t you think that the means or instruments of the Permanent Interstate Committee for Drought Control in the Sahel are not sufficient to face this challenge?

I do not know the organisation that you mentioned very well. All I can say is that FAO and WFP are preparing a strategy for food security to face emergencies in West Africa. The regional organisations like ECOWAS will have to take the lead of the actions and strategies with the support of the United Nations and other international organisations.

Q: The UN appears to play the role of a fireman on food security issues. Does the international organisation have any specific policies to help African countries to strengthen the agricultural production? If yes, how are these policies implemented?

That is exactly what we are doing. We promote the Comprehensive Framework for Action (CFA) which aims to bridge traditional divides between humanitarian assistance and long term strategies in the agricultural and rural development sectors. It does not seek to prescribe specific policies, but to help governments provide their own capacities.

We also support countries which are developing rapid recovery of the areas that have been hit by food insecurity. So we are trying to make sure that African governments or regional organisations take the leadership on this issue, with the support of the UN, which invests on long term agricultural strategies.

The CFA foresees two sets of actions for a comprehensive response to the global food crisis. The first set focuses on meeting the immediate needs of vulnerable populations, and the second set builds resilience and contributes to global food and nutrition security. To meet the immediate needs of vulnerable populations, the CFA proposes a list of key outcomes to be advanced through different actions.

Emergency food assistance, nutrition interventions and safety nets need to be enhanced and made more accessible; smallholder farmers food production to be boosted; trade and tax policies to be adjusted; and macroeconomic implications to be managed. To build resilience we need to expand social protection systems and sustain smallholder farmer-led food availability growth. International food markets need to be improved and international bio-fuel consensus need to be developed.

This work is on the way all over Africa. I do not know why you compare the UN with firemen; I do not think that is truly what we are. We are more like a group that acts behind the scene to help governments, civil societies, farmers’ organisations and also businesses better organise themselves to ensure food security to people. We are not visible, but what I know from where I sit is that we are hugely empowering African national governments.

Q: But what about the Maputo Declaration? Many African countries have not yet allocated 10pc of their national budget to agriculture.

I agree with you, but you will also recognise that some African countries such as Ethiopia, Niger or Mali have reached the target, and many others have developed really strong development strategies using their own national resources in agricultural investments.

What you need first is a strong investment strategy and the ability to convince economic ministers to invest part of their national GDP in food. You must not forget that there are many sectors like health and education which need huge investment.

I do not think it is appropriate for people like me to say to a government to indicate the amount of resources to be allocated in agriculture. But I can guarantee that over the years, we have seen a complete transformation of the governmental approach to food security and agriculture in Africa. 

Q: There is also a paradox in Africa today. The poorest countries in the field of agricultural production are not who we think they are. In the DRC, even in Burundi and Uganda in rainy Central Africa, people starve. Do you agree? How can we explain this paradox compared to the Sahel region which has found some key solutions to face starvation?

Let me be clear. You often get the highest level of food security in communities that are quiet prosperous. This is because frequently, very poor farmers or labours will move to places where there is prosperity and high production in search of work. This means that you will get some very healthy people, but you get others who are definitely experiencing food insecurity. We have seen this phenomenon in all over the world, not only in Africa.

The reason why we see people suffering in, let us call them ‘unexpected’ African countries, is because national development programs are probably not directly targeted to the poorest people who have difficulties in getting access to social services or safety nets. But I would like to remind you that countries such as Burundi or Rwanda are regularly hit by drought.

Q: The Director General of FAO, Jacques Diouf, recently told me how proud he was to see a dozen African countries being able to put an end to their ‘starving image’ and serious child diseases due to food shortage. Malawi is a case study. Are you optimistic as well?

National governments have, within their power, the capacity to adopt policies and programs that will lead to securing food for the majority of their people. If they have these policies and programs in place, they will also be able to secure support from the international community. We do not see a situation in the world where the government does not have the capacity to develop the right policy response.

What we understand is that there are some settings where they do not have adequate resources. We do see much more availability of finances than ever before. I would say that I see real and existing progress in Africa and also elsewhere, with more and more countries ready to take their responsibilities to reduce food insecurity dramatically.

I am personally confident that if this trend continues, with the support of the International community, we will see huge progress in the next ten or fifteen years, and the situation will be unrecognisable compared to the current period. I am very positive about the progress, the political commitment and the collective actions that are taking place.

Q: The last World Summit that took place in Johannesburg in 2002, ended with the debate on the popularity of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). Many countries are in favour, while others are not. What kind of guarantees can Africans have for a non-risky popularisation of GMO in a continent threatened by food insecurity?

The situation on seeds that have been changed by bio-technology is that governments evaluate the decision on whether or not to adopt GMO. I cannot give my opinion on such a debate, which mostly involves the World Health Organization (WHO) and FAO. The only thing I can say is that we should compare the results from the countries such as Burkina Faso which have adopted GMO, and others in which GMO have been banned. It must be done on the basis of scientific research conducted in an independent and serious way. But the final decision is up to national governments.

Q: As the economies of most African countries are rooted in agriculture, and the bulk of the African people are engaged in the agricultural sector, there are serious concerns about the implications of climate change for the food security of the continent. The Durban Conference, which will open on November 28, 2011, is seen as a last chance to take action on the Kyoto Protocol, and find a global climate change agreement. What do you expect from the Durban Conference?

In Capetown, in the middle of the current year, I had the privilege to sit with the presidents of South Africa and Mozambique, the Prime Minister of Tanzania and other senior leaders. And what impressed me the most is that they certainly want to see global negotiations taking place, but they are also clearly stating that this will stop neither national governments nor regional organizations from acting in a coordinated manner themselves to adopt mitigation based policies and also to reinforce the adaptation and resilience of livelihoods and households. Their motto will be “climate change is already affecting our people, so we have to act now and not wait for a global agreement.” The Secretary General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, is particularly engaged in finding a global agreement. But at the same time, the UN accepts the position taken by a number of African governments.

Q: In countries such as Ethiopia, the availability of detailed food security and nutritional information remains a huge challenge for governments when planning and mobilising disaster response and even looking for external support. How is your office trying to fill this important information gap?

I agree with you that having high quality nutritional information, sessions of monitoring that can detect a rapid change of situation and very effective response mechanisms that can reach people in need, is absolutely critical. This is vital for the accountability of African leaders and the international system, and that is the reason why this issue is central in the CFA. During the G-20 meeting in 2009, the American government, lead by President Barack Obama, asked for the creation of a mechanism to attest global vulnerability in light of the global financial crisis.

Q: The global response to malnutrition remains rather passive although it is the cause of innumerable deaths of children in most developing countries. What is your office doing to initiate an integrated policy response for malnutrition, especially for child malnutrition?

The malnutrition that affects children, especially those under two years old, is a political concern. We have been working with governments, international organisations, the civil society and the private sector to find ways to really scale up the response to child malnutrition through what we call multi-sectoral integrated policy. I am really pleased to say that there have been incredible results for the governments and their stakeholders. On September 20, 2011, we had a High-Level Event on Scaling up Nutrition (SUN) in New York chaired by Ban Ki-moon. One year before, the UN and a group of leaders pledged to do more to address the global burden of malnutrition.

We set the ambitious target of substantially reducing under-nutrition during the most vulnerable 1,000-day period of a child’s life; from pregnancy to the age of two. Since September 2010, a total of 19 Governments from across the world, including Ethiopia, Niger, Mali and Senegal have committed to scale up nutrition. These countries have some of the highest burdens of under-nutrition and high level officials have indicated their intention to reduce under-nutrition and have committed their governments to place nutrition in the centre of development policies.


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