The UK’s Global Food Security Summit – what about social protection?

Published on 20 November 2023

Nicholas Nisbett

Research Fellow

Kate Pruce

Research Fellow

Stephen Devereux

Research Fellow

On 20 November the UK government, alongside the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Children’s Investment Foundation, will host a Global Food Security Summit to “explore how innovation, partnerships and the latest technological advances can ensure long term food security and improved nutrition for people in the hardest-hit countries.”

With the world off-course to meet globally agreed Sustainable Development Goal targets, both to end hunger and malnutrition and to ‘leave no-one behind’, any focus on food (in)security is welcome. But the roots of hunger and malnutrition and the global injustices they represent run deep and beyond the suggested focus of the summit on scientific and technological solutions. Income inequalities and food price rises, in particular, have combined over the past few years to push millions more people into acute food insecurity and chronic malnutrition.

Many measures mentioned in the press briefing ahead of the summit seem narrowly focused on the agricultural supply side. What of supporting the demand for and distribution of nutritious food, using a range of different measures such as cash transfers, fresh food vouchers and school feeding? Across the world, these measures that fall under the rubric of social protection are seen as essential tools in the fight against food insecurity.

Understanding the links between social protection and food security

Last month, the report of the High Level Panel of Experts (HLPE) to the UN Committee World Food Security (CFS) on Reducing Inequalities for Food Security and Nutrition was presented to the Committee in Rome, highlighting the importance of social protection in reducing inequalities and helping to achieve global goals. At a series of CFS side-events, global experts and government representatives also reflected on a decade of progress in understanding the links between social protection and food security outcomes, building on an earlier HLPE report on this topic.

These reports and the events in Rome highlight how social protection continues to play an important part of the approach to both short and long-term responses to food insecurity. But bringing rigorous and critical social science to bear on the topic – including learning from those implementing and operating social protection programmes – is important as the link between social protection and food security and nutrition (FSN) is not a given.

In South Africa, for example, our research has shown that despite an abundance of social protection programmes, including the Child Support Grant, a monthly cash transfer that reaches 12 million children, rates of child stunting (sub-optimal growth due to chronic nutritional deficiencies) have remained static since 1994. Yet rates of hunger have gone down. How can that be? The paradox might be explained by the fact that the transfers are sufficient to satiate hunger, but not enough to afford a healthy and nutritious diet. An understanding of malnutrition as being more than hunger is important: a child sick with diarrhoea or whose immune system is under attack from another disease will not absorb sufficient nutrients. So South Africa’s wider health and other infrastructural deficiencies are important to consider too.

In Latin America, like in South Africa, we see high rates of obesity and associated non-communicable diseases such as heart disease and diabetes. There is some concern (though still little clear evidence) that providing people with cash transfers, without tackling unhealthy food environments, may have detrimental consequences in terms of an increased risk of obesity, if cash recipients purchase calorifically dense, nutrient poor foods. This is not an argument against cash transfers, but rather that social protection interventions need to consider the range of factors that drive poor food environments.

Nutrition-sensitive social protection

Social protection alone cannot reduce food prices, nor tackle unhealthy food environments. But the growing body of knowledge around nutrition-sensitive social protection does explore how social protection can promote better nutrition outcomes.

Developments in the past decade have shown us how cash transfers might work better when combined with support to new parents and nutrition education. In Bangladesh, for example, providing cash plus nutrition information achieved a significant impact on child nutritional status, compared to cash or food alone. School meals can also improve nutrition outcomes for children, especially when combined with complementary interventions such as supplements, school food gardens, and deworming.

There are also various ways in which transfers targeted at women might improve not just spending power, but decision making and autonomy in wider aspects ranging from child health to livelihoods investment, which can feedback to the nutritional status of children. Working with the World Food Programme and the International Food Policy Research Institute, IDS have produced an operational guide laying out these different ‘Social Protection Pathways to Nutrition’.

Building resilient livelihoods and routes out of poverty

As both HLPE reports mentioned above set out, to achieve sustainable change and tackle root inequalities, social protection needs to move beyond simply protecting people against shocks, to preventing them and promoting more resilient livelihoods and routes out of poverty, combined with transformative, rights-based measures.

Redistribution of resources within society to ensure equitable access to food for all entails questions about who is included and excluded, and who decides? Also needed is better recognition of why particular groups are facing poverty traps – what kinds of underlying inequities and injustices have cohered over time to lead to such society-wide inequalities that measures like cash and food transfers are required?

Of course, social protection is not a panacea, and badly designed or implemented interventions can do harm while intending to do good. Certain programmes have exacerbated the care and food provisioning burdens of poor women, for example, by requiring them to perform time-consuming tasks before receiving assistance.

This risk is heightened when social protection and FSN interventions are designed far from the intended beneficiaries, without adequate representation in the design and operation of these schemes, including monitoring, evaluation, learning and redress when things go wrong.

Research has shown that when this does happen, for example through social audits that enabled marginalised communities in Odisha in India to redress deficiencies in some key Indian social protection programmes, then services will start to improve.

(For more details on this framework of redistribution, recognition and representation in tackling FSN inequalities, see the new HLPE report on Reducing inequalities for food security and nutrition.)

We know and acknowledge that the UK has been a strong supporter of social protection over the years. The UK government has also recognised the need to tackle deep-rooted inequalities, including gender and climate injustices. One outcome of the Global Food Security Summit should be a reprioritisation of social protection as central to the UK and its partners’ approach to tackling global food insecurity.

As we learned during Covid-19, technological innovation and social protection can work well together to deliver essential assistance to those experiencing hunger and malnutrition, and to those left furthest behind. They should now be harnessed to deliver the Sustainable Development Goals, especially the basic human right to food security and nutrition for all.

The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IDS.


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