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SC UK Experiences of Food Security Information Systems

Summary of review1

SC UK recently conducted a review of their experiences of supporting Food Security Information Systems (FSIS) over the past 15-20 years. The review drew on specifically prepared case studies of experiences in Southern Sudan, Darfur, Somalia, Tanzania, Ethiopia, and southern Africa and two other specially commissioned documents. Providing an overview of SC UK experiences of secondment to strengthen FSIS and a synthesis of donor views on FSIS, the main findings of the review are as follows;

HEA and other methodologies as a tool in FSIS

While certain criticisms of the Household Economy Approach (HEA) have a degree of validity, others are often over-emphasised, reflect unrealistic expectations of the methodology or have not taken into account recent developments/advances in the approach. The ramifications of these critiques may be that credibility is, on occasions, undermined or that compromise methodologies are invoked, with potentially negative consequences. In order to strengthen and optimise the future role of HEA, scenario-based guidance material should be developed which highlights the strengths and weaknesses of the approach in different contexts. This would require more systematic documentation and review of the experiences of using HEA, particularly in terms of technical rigour, practicality in different contexts and proven value in advocacy and accuracy of prediction. In some contexts, compromised HEA approaches may be necessary in order to account for institutional, staff capacity, security and infrastructure related factors.

A Dinka boy milks a cow at a cattle camp in South Sudan

There is a significant gap in the literature, and within humanitarian agency understanding, regarding the impact and relative cost-effectiveness of many food and nutrition related emergency interventions. Given this, and the potential of HEA to provide a practicable approach to measuring food security impact, greater investment should be made in developing and promoting the role of HEA in impact assessment of food security interventions.

HEA and Individual Household Economy Approach (IHEA)) also have the methodological potential to support FSIS in longer-term vulnerability analysis and poverty monitoring. Its key strengths as a methodology for this include the fact that HEA identifies structural constraints to food security and quantifies changing components of the food economy and that it can also be used to model different scenarios, e.g. policy changes. The approach also focuses on process and implementationoriented indicators at household level, an area currently lacking in PRSP2 monitoring (often referred to as the 'missing middle'). However, there is currently limited experience of employing HEA in longer term poverty monitoring and analysis.

Factors which influence use of information by decision-makers

Designers and implementers of FSIS need to have an understanding of the mandates, policies and politics of UN agencies and governments and how these may impact on decisionmaking, in order to tailor their information management and alliance building strategies accordingly. Politicisation of information may be critical at national government level. Consideration has to be given to whether governments are likely to be sensitive to information and therefore not react or, at worst, suppress information. The institutional location of the FSIS within government may be key here. This may also have implications for the need to decentralise government FSIS capacity and decision-making.

Credibility of the information system is also critical to information use. Experience has shown that this is most enhanced when there has been a process of multi-agency consultation over methodological development, e.g. in southern Sudan and national vulnerability assessment committees (NVACs). Credibility is also enhanced through involvement of agencies/staff whom external decision-makers perceive as 'neutral' in terms of information analysis. Thus secondment can be effective in ensuring buy-in. A related issue is the need to have a clear communication strategy for decision-makers so that they understand how the information is derived and analysis undertaken. Decision-makers who are not involved in the development of the system may require support/training.

FSIS information has rarely been used to promote or influence non-food aid responses in emergency contexts. While this reflects a number of political, institutional, and events driven factors, it also reflects methodological short-comings in emergency needs assessment and FSIS, as well as the limited array of response capacity in the emergency humanitarian sector. There is a clear need for increased experience of non-food aid responses in emergency situations to strengthen understanding of the types of information and analysis needed, to determine the appropriateness and feasibility of non-food aid responses in a given context.


Although sustainability of FSIS cannot be accurately tested until external donor funding is withdrawn, it is clear that where demand for the FSIS is high, e.g. in emergencies (and geo-politically important regions), there is likely to be consistent external donor support. However, for systems where emergencies are more sporadic and/or which are more embedded in, and partially funded by, national government structures, funding is likely to be less reliable.

Critically, there are almost no data on the costs of FSIS in the public domain. Without more standardised data on costs, it will be impossible to engage in debates regarding the costs of establishing and sustaining FSIS or different components of the system and the potential for cost-sharing amongst a variety stakeholders. Information on costs would facilitate identification of potentially sustainable funding sources for different components of a system, e.g. early warning systems, longer term poverty monitoring and impact assessment, as these will have specific values to different stakeholders. The paucity of data on costs of FSIS and their various components is a severe constraint on financial planning in relation to sustainability.

Strategies to build and sustain capacity in FSIS need to be developed on a country-by-country basis and take account of existing educational levels and capacity/skills, and movement of staff within government departments, and between government and international agencies. Consideration also needs to be given to competing demands on government staff during capacity building work and the need for refresher courses/training of trainers, etc. Expertise can all too easily be lost, especially where there is limited institutional ownership and buy-in. A critical lesson and recommendation is how important it is to undertake a capacity analysis prior to implementing or supporting an FSIS and to anticipate scenarios where capacity can be eroded. Such an analysis, which should be applied at all levels of the system (central and decentralised levels), will influence choice of methodology in terms of complexity and level of training needed.

The means to obtaining maximum institutional ownership of the approach, as well as ensuring that the FSIS is well placed institutionally in terms of maintaining support and influence, is a vital consideration. This requires substantial stakeholder analysis. For example, understanding the organisational structures and where the decision-makers are, while ensuring the most powerful stakeholders are 'on board'. There is a major gap in the literature with regard to understanding how institutional factors impinge on FSIS sustainability. This could be addressed through more systematic institutional analysis of the many FSIS currently operating within or at the margins of national governments. Unfortunately, international/ expatriate technicians who are called upon to develop/support/strengthen these FSIS are not equipped with the skills/background to undertake institutional or organisational analysis.

Integrating FSIS with longer-term poverty monitoring and analysis

There are many methodological, institutional and political issues to consider in terms of integrating FSIS with poverty and vulnerability monitoring. For example,

In attempting to integrate FSIS with longerterm poverty monitoring and analysis, agencies should consider a range of technical, institutional and political challenges.


Coordination of FSIS is frequently overlooked. In the case study countries, it has been less of an issue in conflict affected areas where the main operational FSIS has been closely linked to a UN structure. In other situations, e.g. Tanzania, Ethiopia, northern Sudan, lack of coordination has led to duplication/wastage, lack of standardisation of information and confusion for decision makers. Formation of multi-agency bodies, including technical institutions, has proven to be the way forward with regard to better coordination. However, where the strategy for FSIS is to integrate these with longer term poverty monitoring and analysis, then the likelihood is that coordination will become even more complex.

The experience in southern Africa shows that formation of a regional (across a number of countries) multi-agency body, including and chaired by regional technical institutions, lends credibility to regional leadership and builds consensus amongst participating institutions. It can also facilitate the development of appropriate capacity at national level, while training at regional level ensures a common methodology and understanding across the region.

Currently, within the humanitarian system it is not clear who has the overall mandate to strengthen coordination of FSIS at country or regional level. This needs to be addressed. It may be that lead international non governmental organisations (INGOs) take on this role within countries or that INGOs with a history of supporting FSIS may wish to independently develop this mandate and expertise.


There has been limited experience of decentralising FSIS. Theoretically, decentralisation allows for local ownership and provides a vehicle through which local agencies can appraise and plan projects. However, there is little information on the cost, feasibility, sustainability and real value of such initiatives. There may be critical issues around capacity of local staff and financial sustainability within local government funding mechanisms. There may also be political issues around empowering local government and disempowering central administrations. In general, donors are interested in FSIS that build up from a decentralised level as long as these are effectively institutionalised in government.


Key actors in FSIS must invest time and effort into communicating to donors how FSIS and specific methodologies operate in practice, as well as how different methodologies can interlink and complement each other, rather than operate in parallel. Continuous dialogue with donors is necessary with regard to evolving information systems, as well as the strengths and weaknesses of different approaches and lessons learnt. Given the high turnover of donor staff, these lessons need to be captured in guidance material. There are currently no generic guidelines (there are agency guidelines) on FSIS in spite of the enormous demand for FSIS data.

Field work as part of a livelihood development project

Donors should be encouraged and supported in standardised monitoring of FSIS costs and their different components. Donors should also be encouraged to invest in evaluating the performance of FSIS - especially from an institutional and decision-making perspective, where donors will have a comparative advantage. Donors at country level should, as a matter of course, be involved in FSIS design in order to ensure greater understanding, trust and ' buyin' to findings. FSIS stakeholders should attempt to track/monitor donor policies/priorities and 'internal thinking' with regard to FSIS. These may be donor specific across a range of countries, donor specific for a particular country, or staff/individual specific. This type of knowledge, perhaps kept in 'donor files', will allow agencies with a keen interest in FSIS to target 'educational messages' and funding requests to specific donors. It will also assist in building strong partnerships in support of specific FSIS approaches.

Guidance material

There is an urgent need to develop comparative and scenario-based guidance material on FSIS. Guidance material should allow potential users to evaluate which type of methodology and system is most appropriate for a given context. Clearly, any such guidance material should be a 'working' document. It is astonishing that there is currently no generic guidance material on FSIS, although such systems are a prerequisite for informing emergency and longer-term food security intervention design.

For any further information, contact Michael O'Donnell at SC UK on email: M.O'

Show footnotes

1Food Security Information Systems Supported by Save the Children UK: A Review

2Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers

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Reference this page

SC UK Experiences of Food Security Information Systems. Field Exchange 26, November 2005. p9.