Shaping the future: Our strategy for research and innovation in humanitarian response.

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Photo credit: Alexandre Bonneau – AFROTO / ALIMA

The food insecurity crisis in Eastern Africa could affect up to 50 million people this year, and is driven by many factors – with the climate crisis, armed conflict (both localised and the war in Ukraine), global economic contractures and the ongoing impacts of COVID-19 contributing.  

Unfortunately, the drivers of this crisis are not likely to improve in the short term, and the cyclical nature of such compounded crises are likely to result in further food insecurity emergencies affecting the health, wellbeing and futures of people in the years to come.  It is essential that the humanitarian and research communities work together to identify system solutions to prevent households and communities from falling into crisis, to avoid the long-term impacts of food insecurity.   

Taking a long-term view

At Elrha, within the Research for Health in Humanitarian Crises (R2HC) programme, we thought long and hard about launching a responsive research call to address this crisis. However, the short-term nature of such responsive calls belied the cyclical and highly complex nature of these crises.  

Instead, through a series of consultations with actors at global, regional and national levels, we came to the conclusion that what we can best offer, and what is vitally needed is a multi-year programme of research. A programme that would work with all levels of stakeholders to find solutions to prevent food insecurity and malnutrition in humanitarian contexts, instead of responding once the crisis is already underway. We’re therefore excited to launch two new commissioned research Requests for Proposals (RfPs) to kick-start this programme of work. 

Where is the evidence?

The first study, a literature review, is in direct response to an identified evidence-gap on the ground in the Horn of Africa, and seeks to answer the question of how malnutrition and food insecurity increases risks of disease, maternal and child morbidity and mortality, and violence. It’s a big question, but we anticipate it can be (at least partly) answered through a rapid literature review.  

The findings of the review will be used by a range of health actors including WHO, NGOs and Ministries of Health in countries with high food insecurity. It will give them the evidence they need to advocate to donors for more funding, and to push for greater integration of health programming in the strategic response to food insecurity and malnutrition.  We aim to have the results available by the end of March 2023, so the findings can be used as soon as possible.   

Creating prevention packages

The second study will launch our multi-year programme of work on prevention of food insecurity and malnutrition tailored for children under age 5 and pregnant and lactating women.  We anticipate working with a wide network of food insecurity, nutrition, health, livelihoods, WASH and social protection actors to develop what we’re terming “prevention packages” – which are integrated bundles of evidenced interventions that can be deployed in humanitarian contexts in anticipation of future episodes of food insecurity.   

A package might consist of locally made nutrition products, food supplementation, vaccination and health promotion campaigns, livelihoods support, cash transfers, and water and sanitation upgrades.  By taking a multisectoral lens, these packages will help to prevent the health, nutrition and economic impacts of food insecurity, thus enabling families and communities to avoid resorting to crisis actions like selling their livestock, early marriage, or displacement. The first step in this programme of work will be to understand what evidence-based interventions are already out there, and then to build these into the “prevention packages”.  

To ensure that the packages are feasible, realistic and appropriate for the wide variety of contexts where food insecurity is prevalent, we will be commissioning a research team, comprising a mix of expertise, to take on the first phase of this work.  

A new approach informed by actors on the ground

The process we’ve taken to develop these studies is a new approach for the R2HC. In the past we’ve been less directive in the research we’ve funded, with open calls inviting research and humanitarian communities to pitch their projects across a wide range of thematic evidence gaps. While we will continue with our open calls, this crisis required a direct response and new method – we welcome your applications to our request for proposals. 

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