Learning before the next humanitarian crisis: A review of the 2016-17 Food Insecurity Response Program in Malawi

Trials of drought tolerant beans in Malawi, which suffered from its worst drought in three decades. (Photo credit: N.Palmer/CIAT, 2016)

Devastation hits Malawi

Unfortunately, 2015 and 2016 were not good years for Malawi or our neighboring countries. What started with late rains and some of the worst flooding in 2015, was immediately followed by severe drought in 2016. Agricultural production plummeted, leaving millions of residents hungry and vulnerable.

This was especially devastating for one of the 15 most agriculture-dependent countries in the world.

While the impacts of these back-to-back crises were felt throughout the region, Malawi was one of the hardest hit countries, in terms of scale and severity of the impact. The Malawi Vulnerability Assessment Committee (MVAC) released a report in June 2016 indicating that 6.5 million (eventually raised to 6.7) people in 24 districts would be unable to meet their basic food needs, prompting the government of Malawi declared a state of emergency. In response, the 2016/17 Food Insecurity Response Program (FIRP) was formed and aid from development partners began flowing to the country to help deal with the crisis.

What did the response look like?

The FIRP response involved the use of various modalities including in-kind food distribution, cash transfer and maize vouchers to aid 6.7 million food insecure people, predominantly in southern and central Malawi during the period of July 2016 to March 2017. The strategic objectives of FIRP were to save lives, protect livelihoods, and contribute to the building of resilience in the livelihoods of the affected population. The response was organized into seven thematic clusters with joint leadership for each provided by a Government ministry or agency as well as one of the United Nations agencies. The seven clusters and their joint leaders were as follows:

  1. Food security (DODMA/WFP);
  2. Agriculture (MoAIWD /FAO);
  3. Water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) (MoH/UNICEF);
  4. Nutrition (DNHA/UNICEF);
  5. Protection (MGCDSW/UNICEF);
  6. Education (MoEST/UNICEF); and
  7. Health (MoH/WHO).

Assessing the response

While the crisis stage has thankfully passed, the Government of Malawi has decided to take the opportunity to learn from this humanitarian response, to be better equipped to handle future crises, should they arise.

Earlier this year, the Malawian Department of Disaster Management, along with the United Nations Resident Coordinator Office (UNRCO), jointly commissioned a comprehensive ‘humanitarian assistance review,’ to be conducted by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), in order to draw lessons from the humanitarian crisis response and assess whether the management of subsequent donor aid was managed effectively. The goal is to learn from this experience now, before the next crisis hits.

The FIRP review has four main objectives:

  1. Assess the quality of the national food security assessments which informed the response;
  2. Assess the accuracy of the geographical and beneficiary targeting within selected areas;
  3. Conduct an operational assessment of the food insecurity response design and implementation; and
  4. Assess overall programme, including resourcing and draw technical, market, and methodological implications for the design of future food insecurity responses and their contribution to resilience building.

In June 2017, a team of IFPRI researchers began conducting interviews at national, district, and community levels. The first phase of results is expected by August 2017, with the second phase following by October. Phase I is a desk review of all documentation related the response program supplemented by interviews with key informants and views from the experience of those directly involved in the response program. Phase II will include a more focused and in-depth reviews based on the lessons and experience gained in the phase I. This phase will involve qualitative fieldwork in five districts: Blantyre, Dedza, Lilongwe rural, Mzimba, and Nsanje (all chosen for their high caseloads and receipt of both cash and in-kind aid modalities).

The assessment will look closely at how decisions were made during the 2015-2016, with specific emphasis on the institutional arrangements and policy processes in place for decision-making at all levels and their implications. It will assess the methods used for gauging people’s food and other basic needs during emergencies and study the implementation, resourcing, and resilience-building aspects of the response, plus the intended and unintended outcomes of the FIRP, in order to learn lessons for responding better to future humanitarian crises.

The results of this evaluation can help in future humanitarian responses by … assessing the needs more accurately and understanding the implications of interventions at the market and household levels.”

-Suresh Babu, Head of Capacity Strengthening, IFPRI; and Lead Researcher for FIRP review