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Regional themes > Food security Last update: 2020-11-27  

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Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)

Planning for the future:
An assessment of food security early warning systems in sub-Saharan Africa

Synthesis report

James Tefft, Mark McGuire and Nick Maunder

Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)


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Executive summary

The crippling famines of the 1970s and 1980s in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) prompted the development of national and regional early warning systems (EWS) across the continent. Generally, these systems have been effective in alerting countries and donors to impending food crises largely in the context of seasonal droughts, helping to mitigate adverse impacts. There are, however, important exceptions that suggest that inadequate early warning analysis, together with poor communication and ineffective coordination and response mechanisms, have often contributed to acute food security emergencies that might have been prevented. In addition, several key emerging issues pose increasing challenges to EWS in SSA, including the continued susceptibility of African agriculture to climatic variability and other hazards, the vulnerability of millions of chronically impoverished and malnourished households to a variety of threats, and the impacts of economic liberalization and globalization on African households.

Strengthening EWS was identified in the Cairo Plan of Action as a priority area for cooperation between the African Union (AU) and European Union (EU) to improve food security in Africa1. The AU and EU agreed with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) to conduct an assessment of EWS on food security in SSA with the following objectives:
  • obtaining a clear understanding of the efficiency and effectiveness of existing EWS;
  • reviewing strengths and weaknesses, credibility, cost-effectiveness and sustainability in regard to institutional, methodological, technical and resource issues;
  • providing technical and institutional recommendations on actions to be taken to strengthen these systems for improved decision-making at national and regional levels.
This report synthesizes findings and recommendations of an assessment of EWS in SSA, which focused mainly on systems operated by national governments and regional inter-governmental institutions2. The major findings are presented in relation to three themes:
  • early warning methods, technical skills and capacity;
  • information needs, consensus-building and communication; and
  • institutional setting and capacity of EWS.
EWS traditionally employ a variety of methods focused mostly on monitoring agro-climatic shocks and impacts on food production to estimate food aid requirements, using a national cereal balance as a primary tool. Some EWS are also involved in geographic targeting of food-insecure zones or conducting periodic food needs assessments. The methods used in the more effective systems tend to be based on a livelihoods orientation and to use multiple analytical tools that lead to a greater understanding of the food and nutritional situation; these help to identify more diverse responses to both emergency and chronic conditions of food insecurity. Innovative partnerships for conducting analysis (with development partners, non-governmental organizations and universities) have been shown to help overcome human resource constraints, improve the quality of analysis and strengthen capacity.

The assessment indicates that the way in which information is collected, analysed and disseminated is critical to its use in decision-making and to supporting timely national responses to transitory food and nutrition crises. A more transparent and participatory approach helps actors to reach consensus on the food situation and to target information to decision-makers’ priority information needs, and facilitates prompt action to mitigate the impact of food deficits and diverse threats to livelihoods.

The institutional setting or home of an EWS has a major influence on its ability to carry out its mission. Several factors appear to exert a positive influence on system performance:
  • positioning that is conducive to a reciprocal flow of information with the primary decision-making bodies involved in emergency actions and food security programming;
  • administrative ease to access primary and secondary data from the decentralized offices and line ministries;
  • managerial independence and analytical autonomy that allows EWS to independently carry out its mission with minimal bureaucratic obstruction or political interference;
  • the ability to recruit and train a diverse group of food security analysts who can address the evolving nature of EWS work, particularly in terms of a multi-sector orientation; and
  • the opportunity to procure sustainable sources of funding from the national budget.
The establishment of a demand-driven system is critical to EWS effectiveness and long-term sustainability. Almost all EWS – in collaboration with their consultative bodies and in the context of available financial resources and human capacity – need to clarify their mandate and terms of reference. Too often, decisions on content and methods have been based on assumptions of what is needed rather than on a clear articulation of what users want and will use.

Bringing the demand side to the forefront of system development will require strong commitment and support of governments and technical partners to develop the processes and critical institutional mechanisms to articulate user demands for information and analysis, translate them into a well-defined mandate and costeffective methods and ensure that the requisite financial and human resources required for long-term sustainability are developed.

Regional economic communities (RECs) have played an important role in certain regions in providing methodological support to national systems; serving as a neutral instrument for validating national crop survey and cereal balance sheet results; assuring comparability of analyses across time and space; and, perhaps most importantly, providing a forum for governments, donors and technical partners to discuss and collaborate on early warning issues. Just as the work of national systems must be driven by user needs, REC support to EWS should be determined primarily by the needs of member states. Their future role should undoubtedly centre on a small number of strategic interventions for which they have a comparative advantage. Their responsibilities should be carefully assessed against their capacity and constraints.

One core recommendation emerging from this assessment is that countries, regional organizations, development partners and the African Union focus their collaborative efforts on creating or strengthening institutional mechanisms that guide the development of the EWS and enable them to evolve in a dynamic and sustainable manner, responsive to their principal users.

The assessment also makes clear that EWS should become part of an expanded food security information and analysis system that can produce viable, relevant and credible information for use in responding to short-term emergencies as well as contributing to longer-term development programming. Achieving these objectives will require EWS to more effectively and consistently satisfy the government’s analytical and information needs in food security decision-making.

This synthesis also presents the core elements of an improved strategy for EWS that focuses on developing the mechanisms, institutions and national capacity needed for future work. The hallmarks of this improved strategy include:

  • national ownership and development partner commitment to a national process;
  • partnerships for improved analysis;
  • responsiveness to user needs;
  • accountability;
  • use of the most cost-effective methods;
  • consensus-building in analysis of the food situation and appropriate response options;
  • linkages to long-term development programming;
  • strengthened national and regional capacity; and
  • financial sustainability.
In this context, more specific recommendations are offered for consideration by national governments, RECs, development partners and the African Union to guide action that will contribute to the implementation of this improved strategy, taking into account the feasibility, availability of resources and capacity of each actor.

  1. OAU and EU. Cairo Plan of Action. Africa–Europe Summit, Cairo, Egypt, 3–4 April 2000.
  2. Assessment of food security early warning systems in sub-Saharan Africa (GCP/INT/758/ECRAF).

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