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Synthesis of Key points from the SCN Symposium ‘Nutrition in the context of crisis and conflict’

Statement for endorsement by the UN Secretary General on Nutrition in Conflict and Crisis - 15th March 2002

As reported in the last Field Exchange, the ACC/SCN Sub Committee on Nutrition 29th Session hosted a one day symposium on 'Nutrition in the context of crisis and conflict'. Key points and recommendations to emerge from this symposium were as follows:

  1. A significant advance in emergency nutrition has been the increased recognition of the social, economic and political determinants of malnutrition in emergencies and the role of these determinants in programme success. Food and nutrition interventions in conflicts require careful analysis of the potential risks associated with implementation. Programmes should seek to maximise good and minimise harm. Interventions should never seek to apply blanket protocols. Vulnerability assessments must consider the multiple risks facing people in conflict, and not single out individual criteria such as gender, class, race / ethnicity and age.
  2. The humanitarian imperative drives a needs based response. The humanitarian imperative in emergencies is frustrated, and in some instances, undermined, by the politicisation of humanitarian assistance including food aid allocations.
  3. Upholding the dignity of disaster affected communities is highlighted in Human Rights legislation. The presentation on human rights did not go as far as outlining the practical application of human rights programming in emergencies. The Sphere project is an example of the practical application of human rights in emergency assistance.
  4. The momentum created to explore programming to prevent malnutrition through livelihoods support and health intervention needs to be invested in. Flexibility should be applied to the use of resources for emergency response to allow programming which is determined by local need. More flexibility should also be applied in food aid programming, such as to allow local purchase where appropriate. There is also a need to devote greater resources to non-food items as part of humanitarian assistance, in order to effectively address the multiple casual factors responsible for malnutrition in emergencies.
  5. The specialisation of agency mandates risks creating gaps in intervention capacity.
  6. There is a lack of agency presence in low-profile areas. These low-profile emergencies are under-resourced and receive little attention from the media and donors. Hence they require increased investment and improved dialogue between humanitarian and development actors. Humanitarian assistance only reaches a small proportion of people affected by hunger. The international community should also regard chronic hunger as a global humanitarian concern.
  7. Capacity building is a challenge in situations of conflict. As a minimum, agencies should respect the Red Cross / NGO Code of Conduct and attempt to build disaster response on local capacity.


  1. The SCN working group on emergencies conducts careful analysis of the politicisation of food aid to inform members and provide a background paper for a meeting of politicians and technicians.
  2. The Working Group on Human Rights engages with the Working Group on Emergencies regarding sharing experiences of the application of human rights approaches in emergencies and particularly concerning experience in the Sphere Project.
  3. The Working Group on Emergencies links further with the Working Group on Capacity Building to determine what forms of capacity building might be appropriate in a variety of contexts.
  4. Detailed recommendations from the "Advances and Challenges" paper are followed up by the Working Group on Emergencies in 2002 and 2003.
  5. The attached statement is put forward for endorsement by the Secretary General.

After deliberations at the symposium and after a statement for endorsement by the UN Secretary General was prepared. The statement was as follows:

We, the SCN, recognise that the humanitarian imperative in complex emergencies is all too often frustrated and undermined by the politicisation of humanitarian assistance, including food aid allocations.
Further, as a result of narrowing diplomatic, political and economic engagement with marginalised countries, donor priorities have moved away from funding longer term development needs to a concentration on disaster relief. This has created a situation where humanitarian assistance is forced to focus on life saving activities and meeting immediate emergency needs, not in addressing the root causes of hunger and chronic food insecurity. As a result, emergency humanitarian agencies are faced with the double burden of chronic and acute needs.
There are major disparities in international emergency response. "Forgotten" emergencies, those in low profile areas, suffer from a lack of international agency presence, under-resourcing and minimal media coverage. This is clearly linked to the politicisation of humanitarian aid and is major problem of the international aid system that needs to be urgently addressed.
It is now recognised that nutritional outcomes are a result of complex interactions between physiological, socioeconomic, cultural and political determinants of malnutrition. However, this is not always reflected in the policies guiding the allocation of resources, and operational practice, of the international community and national governments.
Furthermore, although the current conceptual framework promotes multisectoral interventions, many agencies find it difficult to cover all sectors and there is an increasing tendency towards agency specialisation. Although specialisation can improve effectiveness of humanitarian intervention, it can also create gaps in intervention capacity and often means that some of the emergency needs of a population are missed. This problem could be resolved through more clearly defined MOUs between agencies.

We, the SCN, recommend the following actions:

  1. There is a need for greater resources to be put towards the implementation of longer term more sustainable programmes that promote food security and actively seek to reduce vulnerability and risk of future disaster.
  2. Food aid resources should be part of a more flexible system of response to nutrition crises. In addition, more resources should be made available for non food costs required to support nutrition programmes, such as health, water, and sanitation activities, and to promote recovery.
  3. The scarcity of resources for humanitarian interventions often requires that aid is targeted to the groups considered most vulnerable. However, vulnerability is often defined using pre-existing assumptions (e.g. women, children, and female headed households), which may or may not hold true within a particular context. It is imperative that vulnerability and population needs be accurately assessed, and assistance allocated accordingly.
  4. Food and nutrition interventions in conflict situations require more careful analysis of all the potential impacts (positive and negative) of delivering humanitarian assistance and should seek to maximise good and minimise harm.
  5. There is an urgent need for all actors to be engaged in rigorous debates on the complexities of aid in crisis situations. This debate is particularly important between policy makers and technicians and should be furthered by a careful analysis of the politicisation of humanitarian assistance, and particularly of food aid.

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Synthesis of Key points from the SCN Symposium ‘Nutrition in the context of crisis and conflict’. Field Exchange 16, August 2002. p16.



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