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Utilising the livelihoods approach in food security assessments

A review1

The latest Humanitarian Practice Network (HPN) paper produced by ODI describes the theory and practice of Oxfam GB's livelihoods approach to assessing food security in emergencies. This involves assessing the longerterm risks to livelihoods as well as short-term nutritional or life threatening risks.

The first part of the paper describes key concepts in food security theory in relation to a livelihoods approach. The second part of the paper describes how Oxfam assesses food security.

The authors explain how the types of intervention indicated by the assessment findings may be determined by considering two perspectives of food security; first by assessing whether people are able to meet their immediate food needs (risk to lives) and secondly by considering the vulnerability and risks faced by different livelihood groups and their coping strategies (risk to livelihoods). Interventions are accordingly identified, ranging from free food assistance to a wide array of livelihood support initiatives, such as cash-for-work and de-stocking.

The third part of the paper uses case-studies to illustrate how Oxfam has applied its livelihoods approach in practice, and how that approach has been adapted depending on the types of livelihood in question, and the nature of the external shock. The case-studies comprise an emergency assessment of the impact of cyclone and floods in Orissa in 1999, a monitoring visit for Oxfam's response to drought in Wajir (Kenya) in 2000 and a review of Oxfam's programme for conflict displaced people in Uraba (Columbia) in 1999. Food aid predominated in the largest responses and in the acute phase of emergencies. For smaller scale responses or in the less acute phases other interventions predominated, e.g. cash for work and agricultural support in Orissa and agricultural and fishing support in Columbia in the second year of displacement. The relatively small scale on which this was done in these case studies made it feasible to implement management-intensive programmes to promote food security.

The paper explains how the approach operates at a conceptual level and does not constitute a methodology nor is it unique to Oxfam. As assessments need to incorporate an analysis of the food security of different livelihood groups and the risks they face, this often means doing a more in-depth assessment than would be the case if lives alone were in question. Analysis of food security of different livelihood groups will lead to the identification of different interventions for each group.

The paper concludes by highlighting key challenges posed by a livelihoods approach. These include:

  1. deciding on the right quantities of food aid and choosing which categories of people to target. Taking a livelihoods approach to emergency food distributions involves a larger quantity of food aid than when the aim is only to meet immediate food needs. Target groups tend to be larger as they include people who still have assets. The Wajir case study showed that taking a livelihoods approach involved targeting almost the entire population. Current nutritional guidelines only cover rations for people who have been cut off from their normal food supply and do not offer advice on food aid designed for livelihood support.
  2. how to combine food and non-food interventions effectively, and when to shift from a food to a non-food approach. A larger question has to do with when to stop distributing aid. In the Wajir example, a question arose over whether aid should only stop when herds had recovered to preemergency sizes. In some areas decisions to phase out distribution were difficult given the tenuous livelihoods of different groups. The authors conclude that further work is needed on this question.
  3. issues to do with neutrality and impartiality, particularly, but not exclusively in complex political emergencies. In conflict situations especially, livelihood support may be seen as impartial. This may also apply to stable situations. As this support is provided to those with assets these are not the poorest or most malnourished or destitute. This may not therefore accord with principles of aid provision developed by the West.

One final conclusion from the authors is that a livelihoods approach explicitly acknowledges life before and after the emergency. Rather than waiting for an emergency response to evolve into rehabilitation and then preparedness activities, this approach encourages a more searching and detailed analysis of the impact of food insecurity on peoples lives. Experience has shown that this has thereby generated response options more in keeping with the diversity of local needs and operational scenarios.

Show footnotes

1Young.H, Jaspars.S, Brown, R, Frize. J and Khogali.H (2001): Food Security Assessments in Emergencies: A livelihoods Approach. Humanitarian Practice Network Paper No 36, ODI June 2001

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Reference this page

Utilising the livelihoods approach in food security assessments. Field Exchange 14, November 2001. p4. www.ennonline.net/fex/14/utilising