In January 2019, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres presciently warned that “global challenges are more and more integrated, and the responses are more and more fragmented. And if these are not reversed, it’s a recipe for disaster.”
The COVID-19 pandemic is an apt example of this, as both the disease and the public policy responses to curb its spread have affected virtually every part of the food system. Domestic and international movement restrictions block the flow of foods and agricultural inputs as well as workers unable to get to farms, processing plants, and markets. The closing of markets leads to post-harvest losses that hurt producers and limit food access among consumers.
For many people, especially the 734 million living below the extreme poverty level of $1.90/day before the crisis began, food access and affordability will be threatened, and the number of people facing acute food insecurity and crisis levels of hunger could increase by 23 million to 113 million overall in the 46 countries FEWSNET tracks. More broadly, it is projected that nearly 100 million additional people will descend into poverty, food insecurity, and chronic hunger as a result of efforts to stop the spread of the virus. Women and girls are likely to experience these impacts even more severely. Meanwhile, small and medium enterprises, the backbone of livelihood and food systems across South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, struggle to stay afloat. Together, these secondary impacts of COVID-19 may be as significant as, or even more adverse than, the direct health outcomes of the virus itself. A recent Oxfam report warns that the impacts of COVID-19 on hunger could result in more deaths than from the virus itself. The Standing Together for Nutrition consortium has published initial projections in The Lancet on significant increases in wasting and decrease in coverage of nutrition services, resulting in potentially 130,000 additional child deaths this year. They are continuing their work and projections on other forms of malnutrition are forthcoming and USAID and our implementing partners are prioritizing actions to mitigate these impacts.
Looking back over the past three months, it has become increasingly clear how important strong food policy systems are for mitigating both the immediate impacts to public health as well as secondary impacts to food and water systems, nutrition, local resilience, and the economy. Think of a policy system as the ecosystem of actors from government, the private sector, and civil society combined with their skills and resources for effective data analysis, inclusive consultations, and sustained coordination across sectors and government agencies. Policy systems that are participatory, transparent, inclusive, evidence-based, and accountable generate better policies. They enable all stakeholders to have a voice that is heard and take ownership of policy processes; they bring the best possible evidence to bear upon decisions; and they are held together by webs of relationships built on trust and accountability. In a crisis such as COVID-19, effective food policy systems can quickly respond to protect the public health, address unintended secondary consequences across multiple sectors, and set the stage for an accelerated rebuilding and resilience effort once the pandemic subsides.
One outcome of strong policy systems is rapid, coordinated national action in response to COVID-19. In April 2020, the Government of Malawi led the development of a cross-ministerial, multi-sectoral national COVID-19 response plan. The plan addresses health; social support; water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH); education; food security; economic empowerment; communications; and transport and logistics. Additionally, the plan was informed by the best evidence available, drawing from WHO guidelines to establish operational procedures for mitigating risks. In Rwanda, the government also listened to scientific evidence and guidance and was quick to close borders to foreigners, ready healthcare systems, and establish green channels to allow the movement of essential goods.
We have also witnessed effective policy systems operating at regional and global scales. Recognizing the negative secondary impacts of border closures, the FAO and African Union issued a joint declaration and commitment “to supporting access to food and nutrition for Africa’s most vulnerable; providing Africans with social protection; minimizing disruptions to the safe movement and transport of essential people, and to the transport and marketing of goods and services; and keeping borders open on the continent for the food and agriculture trade.”
Recommended priorities for strengthening policy systems
The following list includes a set of recommended priorities for countries to implement in order to strengthen their food policy systems and position themselves for a faster recovery.
1. Develop a national, multi-sector, multi-stakeholder COVID-19 response plan.
Country COVID-19 responses should be guided by a national plan that is transparent, evidence-based, and multi-sectoral while engaging all relevant stakeholders in its effort to address health, food security and nutrition, livelihoods, and other aspects of the pandemic. National plans should also specifically address the needs of the most vulnerable and most affected.
2. Invest in data and analytics to enable evidence-based decision-making.
The generation and uptake of reliable, publicly available information contributes to better decision-making by private sector and civil-society stakeholders. Yet one of the biggest policy system issues during COVID-19 has been a lack of data, information, and analytics on the pandemic itself and where and how it is disrupting food systems and supply chains. In addition, these data gaps limit our understanding of how vulnerable populations are impacted by pandemic conditions. For example, it remains unclear how reductions in food intake are impacting various household members, including women and youth. Movement restrictions have affected informal, cross-border trading, which provides critical means of income for many women and how reduced livelihoods contribute to conflicts around land and property — assets that women have historically faced difficulty in protecting.
Local research institutes can play a pivotal role in generating data, analysis, and recommendations, as well as contributing to constructive dialogs and multi-stakeholder governance. Countries should also invest in innovative data tools that support crowd-sourcing and other real-time information on COVID-19 impacts, especially on vulnerable populations — including individuals who are poor, women, youth, smallholder farmers, ethnic minorities, and Indigenous communities. Under appropriate privacy safeguards, governments can facilitate IT-based data collection on food systems operations to gather information on locations and types of blockages to food supply chains.
3. Develop more inclusive policy and decision-making processes.
The poor and other marginalized groups with less power and resources to adapt to unpredictable crisis events are more likely to be adversely affected. Vulnerable communities and populations will have greater difficulty accessing enough food and water for survival and adequate nutrition, and many depend upon the food system for their livelihoods. Governments should provide opportunities for representatives of groups bearing the largest burden from COVID-19 — such as those who are poor or food insecure and women, among others — to lead and amplify their voice in the policy process. Data collection on the impacts should also be sex- and age-disaggregated whenever possible. Greater inclusion in policy dialog about funding priorities is likely to elevate attention to the needs of more vulnerable groups and increase funding to meet them.
4. Increase transparency in government planning and spending to build greater trust among stakeholders.
Transparency in planning and spending is critically important for building trust and encouraging all stakeholders to participate in solutions. Consider that while 79% of countries surveyed for WHO’s annual Global Analysis and Assessment of Sanitation and Drinking-Water indicated they have a national WASH policy, only 9% report having sufficient financing to implement their plans. Strengthening existing financial accounting and development-effectiveness assessments, including public expenditure reviews and joint sector reviews, should be strengthened.
5. Establish means of mutual accountability among stakeholders.
Mutual accountability is based on the concept that progress on complex problems requires commitments to action from all relevant stakeholders holding themselves and others responsible for the execution of their commitments. Oehmke and Badiane have argued that mutual accountability provides a framework for coordinated multi-stakeholder responses. In the case of COVID-19, coordinated policy system responses across countries, governments, the private sector, and civil society — and among both the privileged and the marginalized — are necessary to minimize the impacts of COVID-19.
Domestically, civil society, the private sector, and government must be mutually accountable for developing and implementing mitigation solutions. For countries with a Joint Sector Review (JSR) or similar platform, this platform serves as the basis for more immediate and frequent dialog around COVID-19 stakeholder commitments and reporting. Internationally, governments and multinational corporations must coordinate amongst themselves and with each other to reach solutions. For example, to ensure the continuity of food transport across borders, the public and private sector might develop a joint solution that exempts truck drivers from border restrictions and/or being flexible in contracting with transport drivers and companies on the other side of the border when drivers cannot cross borders, as well as ensuring the drivers are neither infected nor put at health risk themselves. ASEAN’s intervention to calm food-shortage fears is an example of international mutual accountability, with ten countries committing not to restrict food exports and to take collective action to ensure food security (VOA). African Ministers of Agriculture made similar commitments in their April 16 Declaration.
Strong policy systems can ensure that countries are able to build food systems back better, equipped with sufficient resources for measuring recovery. Stakeholders can look to these indicators — greater inclusion, improved food security and nutrition, and rising incomes — to hold leaders accountable and to play a role in adaptive management. Managing adaptively allows food systems stakeholders, including policy makers, to adjust to conditions according to the needed context and to do so in a way that a public health policy is coordinated with and not separate from one promoting food security. COVID-19 presents an opportunity to adapt and improve things through recovery efforts, such as by improving inclusion and addressing disparities. Additionally, strong policy systems support food systems to be shock-responsive, so that they can take a hit (be it a pandemic, locusts, or extreme weather events) and still protect people’s food security and livelihoods.