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Securing Food Under Any Circumstances: A Glimpse Into The Life Of A Humanitarian Worker



“I started my career by working on the things I like, things I am passionate about, and that pushed me forward. However, at a certain point I actually found my biggest passion in the things I don’t accept. I don’t accept hunger, I don’t accept poverty. And while I might not see the end of hunger or poverty during my lifetime, I am at peace with myself knowing that I am doing my part for the generations to come.”

On November 12th, our Food Systems Circle hosted an event on Food (in)security. Leonardo Civinelli Tornel da Silveira, who is currently the Information Management & Reports Officer for the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) in the Democratic Republic of Congo, facilitated an interactive session highlighting the relationship between food security and humanitarian emergencies. Together we learnt about some causes of hunger and ideated innovative solutions for different scenarios.


Leonardo describes himself as a committed humanitarian worker. He has accumulated over a decade of work experience in over 10 countries. He is now in his fourth year with the World Food Programme, where he has been specializing in the field of humanitarian emergencies. He is currently working in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the world's largest food crisis in absolute numbers. He also engaged in the COVID-19 pandemic response, and worked in Yemen, Mozambique and WFP's HQ in Rome. He spoke from his own experience* and shared his views and perceptions with our Food Systems Circle.

Hunger Outlook

The year of 2020 drastically accelerated the most pressing world challenges. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the panorama of food insecurity required world efforts. Since 2019, a growing number of people worldwide have had to reduce the quality and quantity of food they consume. Moreover, the number of people on the brink of famine has increased dramatically within recent years, from 27 million people in 2019 to 45 million people spread across 43 countries today.


In 2020, WFP’s Hunger map reported that 768 million people were chronically hungry, or in other words, severely food insecure. Together with conflict and COVID-19, climate change is one of the major causes of hunger and malnutrition.


The HungerMapLIVE is a global monitoring system by WFP. It merges metrics from several data sources such as food security and nutrition info, weather, conflict, and macro-economic data to track and predict hunger in nearly real-time.


The True Cost Of A Plate Of Food

Have you ever thought about how much the most basic plate of food would cost you? What percentage of your daily income would you spend on a bowl of soup or a simple stew? What if the cost for a simple meal exceeded your daily income?


What sounds like something most of us can’t even imagine, is the reality for people in South Sudan, amongst other countries.

“If people in New York State had to pay the same percentage of the average income on a plate of food as someone in South Sudan, that meal would cost them US$ 392.82.” states the World Food Programme.

The WFP’s third Cost of a Plate of Food report highlights the top 20 countries with the most expensive food per plate, 17 of which are in the Sub-Saharan Africa region. These numbers clearly show the international inequality and underlying systemic and economic issues, such as the high dependency on food imports in the top 20 countries.


So, what does it mean if the price for a simple plate of food is almost twice as high as your daily income? It means you can’t afford it. This is (one of the situations) where WFP comes in. In South Sudan, there are different ways of food assistance. If the markets are functioning and safe, WFP provides cash transfers or food vouchers. The advantage here is that people can choose what they want to eat according to their nutritional habits and culture. In case there is no infrastructure for markets, WFP provides in-kind commodities as well.


Assuming a country donor has a surplus of wheat and wants to ship this to a receiving country in a long term conflict without knowing whether the people from the receiving country like this sort of wheat. In the worst case, an in-kind donation happens without fixing the problem. In these scenarios, it is all about balancing the food distribution in a smart way.


There are different workarounds, one of them is making a trade. If the wheat is not going to work in this specific receiving country, instead it might be shipped to a second country in need. In return, this country would then ship whatever they have in surplus.



Another way around is working towards behavioral change. As a first step, it is important to ensure people actually know how to cook or process the wheat. To inspire them to try out new recipes or adapt traditional recipes, collaborating with chefs and forming learning circles can be a good start. Of course, changing eating habits is always one of the more difficult paths.


The Cycle Of Hunger

Hunger affects several aspects of an individual's life and compromises their opportunities to live with dignity and health. There are several vicious cycles when we talk about hunger. Here is an example of how hunger affects multiple generations: Unhealthy pregnancies lead to undernourished children. A child that is malnourished in the long term, will experience health and development problems. These problems compromise their ability to learn and work, which will also affect the next generation of this family. When amplifying this cycle to a community, a city, or a country, there is an entire generation trapped in a cycle of hunger. The cycle of hunger represents how dangerous it is for a country that is affected long term by hunger, and how this generates massive losses if not tackled effectively.



In our #FoodFutureFridays session, we went through different scenarios and approaches to secure food in humanitarian emergencies - and discussed innovative solutions to provide support and alleviate the effects on people's lives. Take a look at the cases below to understand some of the main problems of food insecurity and possible solutions to overcome them.

Technology Accelerates Understanding Of Disaster Dimensions

When cyclone Idai hit Mozambique in March 2019, many communities were displaced and the chain between food production and consumption was completely destroyed. Accessing food - which used to be part of households’ daily life - turned into a real challenge. The local food economy was destroyed, making access to markets or farms impossible. There was a sudden lack of energy and clean water to adequately cook food; and a lack of infrastructure to find and communicate with the ones most in need.


How can we overcome these challenges? The first step is understanding the disaster dimension as fast as possible. Technology plays a role in accelerating this process. “Drones are used to map where displaced people are, and to identify people that will die if they don't eat timely.”, states Leonardo. And drones can do even more: The company Zipline uses autonomous drones to provide medicine and health equipment when disaster strikes.



Besides the actions to mitigate the disaster’s effects, there are long term strategies to overcome the challenge to access food, such as disaster resistant crops and early warning systems. In addition, there are different hubs storing food all over the word. These food assets are distributed from specific airports, strategically positioned, as the supply chain for food disasters must be very quick. Places with recurring disasters, such as floods, should have disaster recovery plans. These recovery plans need to take into consideration communities' recuperation and risk mitigation. Examples are crop insurance and yield forecasts using satellite systems for smallholder farmers.

Humanitarian Workers Remain Neutral In Conflicts To Fight Hunger

“One of the challenges about conflict is that you may have the money, you may have the market, but it might be unsafe for you to simply leave your house to purchase something. It might be unsafe for you to carry cash around. It might be unsafe to transport food from A to B.”, Leonardo explains.

When working in conflict settings, food used for oppression is a big challenge and a recurring issue. Some people might deviate food meant for beneficiaries and use it to feed armies instead. So, by providing food to certain areas, you may actually be perpetuating the conflict. This is an extremely difficult situation. If you don’t provide food at all, it is likely that people will starve. Luckily, nowadays there are different ways to prevent food distribution fraud from happening, such as biometric registration through fingerprints or iris scans.


Even though conflict areas are difficult to reach, organizations like MSF, the UN or IRC generally have access to many places. “The key principle that we follow in the humanitarian community is the principle of acceptance. It means that we are accepted by the parties and communities involved in the conflict. So instead of going in with armies protecting humanitarian workers, we try to prove to everyone we are not taking sides. We are neutral and only there to help the beneficiaries.”, Leonardo explains.


WFP faces the challenge of saving stocks of wheat in Red Sea Mills in Yemen. This example shows how difficult it is to store and provide food for people in conflict zones. Yemen is facing the worst humanitarian crisis globally. The Red Sea Mills stored 51,000 metric tons of wheat grain in 2018 - enough food for almost 4 million people - when access to the mills was suddenly lost due to the civil war. WFP employees worked as fast as they could to rescue the wheat and deliver it to local families.

"The Red Sea Mills in many ways became a symbol of the many challenges we face as we work tirelessly in Yemen to get food to those who so desperately need it.", states WFP.

The Democratic Republic Of Congo Is Facing The Largest Hunger Crisis In The World

“Living in the DRC is not easy. It is one of the top ten worst countries in virtually every indicator. I have constant power blackouts at home, even though I live in Kinshasa. When it rains, it is very challenging. You can’t really walk around. It is not safe for me to leave my neighbourhood. But I play football twice a week, I go to the gym, I eat well, I have good friends, I play the guitar… It's pretty much a normal life for me at least outside of the chronic issues in the country. What I miss the most are my friends and family.”, says Leonardo.


If you lived in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), you would spend an average of 20.82% of your daily income on a simple plate of food. The DRC is a resource-rich country, yet it is amongst the countries that faced the largest increase in the number of food insecure people in recent years. In fact, the DRC experiences the largest hunger crisis globally. How come? Almost 90% of the cultivable farmland remains unused; national food production covers only 30% of the country’s needs. This is why the DRC depends on food imports. Imported food comes at a higher price and 47% of DRC’s population lives below the national poverty line.The country shows a high rate of malnutrition and food insecurity despite being rich in resources.


So why does the arable land remain uncultivated? One of the biggest challenges is the ongoing conflict, especially in the eastern parts of the country, a so-called protracted emergency. People flee from the violence and leave their farmland abandoned, leading to acute food insecurity. The agricultural day laborers’ small wage poses the next challenge. In many cases, they don’t earn enough to feed their families. On top of these long lasting challenges, the DRC is highly affected by the consequences of climate change.


In Tanganyika, one of the conflict hotspots in the country, WFP and FAO are collaborating to build resilience and strengthen the local value chains for smallholder farmers. Following an integrated approach along the humanitarian-development-peace nexus, the programme consists of five key components:

  1. Building trust amongst communities by establishing early warning and peace committees, building farmer organizations and strengthening their capacities;

  2. Developing agricultural value chains by establishing farmer field schools, and supporting the planting of community fields as well as fruit trees combating deforestation;

  3. Improving post-harvest management and market access by putting in place the necessary infrastructure from storage units to community markets;

  4. Empowering women by providing literacy trainings, raising awareness and including women in income generating activities such as breadmaking, soap making and small-scale catering; and

  5. Unlocking financial capacities by providing inclusive access to credits and enabling beneficiaries to increase their income sources.

“A holistic view of food systems enables supply chain efficiency and efficacy.”, Leonardo adds.


The Future Of Food In Emergencies

As social innovators, our Food Systems Circle discussed strategies to build humanitarian actions, thriving for sustainable development and a peaceful future for all. Leonardo provided insights on creative solutions to tackle hunger in these circumstances.



1. Strengthening capacity building at national government level


Leonardo suggests that the national government is responsible for long term changes. They should always have ownership to cooperate with other actors to create capacity strength. A national government is also capable of building capacity by building incentives systems and legislation aiming for long term development


2. Cooperating with the private sector and leveraging technology


Governments should play a central role in coordinating actions between private sector, NGOs, civil society and humanitarian agencies, as they are the party taking responsibility for their countries’ people. Partnerships between national governments and the private sector provide the opportunity to learn about new technologies or approaches to be applied in humanitarian work. A private company would sponsor a visit between governments so they get exposure to different technologies for agriculture, for instance.


3. Cooperating South-South & Triangular


Cooperation between countries from the global south tends to promote development for both as they often work in similar settings and face similar challenges. For instance, there is a technology largely available in Tanzania, so a cooperation is done with Mozambique to implement it there. It fosters commerce between these two countries and relationships in many aspects, promoting regional development. WFP often serves as a cooperation facilitator in these scenarios.


4. Being proactive and promoting small changes


The humanitarian sector is largely reliant on donors' resources, who might have their own agenda. We need to shift power structures within the aid system and build capacity to create a positive development cycle. Looking at food security, it is essential to strengthen local agriculture systems, instead of buying thousands of metric tons of food from other countries. ”Sourcing food from smallholder farmers instead of importing it generates positive cycles within local systems”, explains Leonardo.


5. Interconnecting humanitarian actions


Complex challenges within food systems and humanitarian emergencies require long term solutions. We have to break up siloed approaches and understand how these challenges are interconnected. Climate change, for instance, must be taken into consideration. Leonardo highlighted an intervention in Sri Lanka to build consciousness about the usage of water in smallholder farmers’s productions.

Hunger And Poverty Are Consequences Of Systemic Failures

“For me, hunger is the ultimate failure of food-related systems. Hunger in today’s world is absurd, so is poverty. These are unnatural consequences of systemic failures.”, states Leonardo. We live in a world where people starve while others are obese, where children can’t get all their nutrients, while others throw food away. Hunger should be perceived as a global challenge, as it is more difficult to overcome in silos. In the 21st century, we should do everything we can to secure food for all countries, by innovating solutions aligned with the three pillars of long term food security: humanitarian assistance, local development and peace and stability.


Authors / Contributors:

Danielle Marques & Janina Peter / Leonardo Civinelli Tornel da Silveira & Jonathan West

About the Food Systems Circle:

The Food Systems Circle is a workgroup of Amani Institute’s Social Innovation Management programme Fellows in support of the United Nations Food Systems Summit, #SustainableSundays and #GOODFOOD4ALL. We meet once a month for #FoodFutureFriday to discuss food systems, share best practices and convene with key experts to deepen our knowledge and build bridges between various areas of expertise, different countries and diverse backgrounds. If you are interested in sharing your insights with us, send us a message. Join our LinkedIn group to exchange and participate! If you are interested in becoming a Fellow at Amani Institute click here.

* Views and opinions shared by Leonardo during the event do not necessarily represent the official policy or position of the World Food Programme. He contributed to the meeting as an individual, sharing his work and life experience.

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