Holistic Solutions for a Growing Food Insecurity Crisis

By Jake Konig, Hilton Fellow, BRAC UPGI

The public health impact of COVID-19 has been devastating, taking the lives of more than one million people globally. As time passes, the global community is becoming increasingly concerned about the next crisis: the economic disaster of COVID-19. Lockdowns in low to lower-middle income countries are causing massive shocks to already fragile economies.

According to new data by UN Women and the United Nations Development Programme, COVID-19 threatens to push 47 million more women and girls into poverty by the end of 2020 which could unravel years of progress in working to eradicate poverty and accomplish Sustainable Development Goal 1. In response to this humanitarian catastrophe, governments have enacted an unprecedented number of social protection programs to meet the basic needs of the world’s vulnerable people. The UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, Olivier De Schutter, highlighted in a recent report that the existing social protection systems do not hold up to human rights scrutiny, and are maladapted, short-term, reactive, and inattentive to the realities of those living in extreme poverty.

More than six months after the pandemic started, global food security is emerging as one of the biggest threats to the world’s most vulnerable people. According to the World Food Program (WFP), in 2019 an estimated 135 million people faced life-threatening food insecurity. With the impact of COVID-19, that figure is projected to double in 2020.

The first COVID-19 famines are beginning to grip parts of Yemen, South Sudan, northeast Nigeria, and the Democratic Republic of Congo endangering the lives of millions of women, men, and children. The staggering nature of the estimated impact that COVID-19 will have on food insecurity makes it difficult to comprehend the human toll of such a catastrophe. However, those millions are made up of individuals, and one of those individuals is Nomita. Nomita lives in Satkhira, Bangladesh and is a mother of two children.

Before the pandemic, the wage Nomita’s husband earned as a day laborer was not enough to meet the basic needs of the family of four. Any income was going towards the next meal, and their household — which was located in Bangladesh’s most disaster-prone area — was one shock away from severe malnutrition or other life threatening risks.

A countrywide lockdown halted the economy, and Nomita’s husband, along with millions of others in the informal economy, lost work. It appeared that Nomita’s family was going to become a statistic among the millions pushed into extreme poverty and life-threatening food insecurity. Globally, ten thousand additional children under five years old are projected to die per month in 2020 due to pandemic-linked nutritional issues.

However, that was not the case for Nomita’s family. In 2019, Nomita joined BRAC’s Ultra-Poor Graduation (UPG) program in Bangladesh, which is designed to help people build sustainable livelihoods and create a pathway out of extreme poverty by providing them with productive assets and skills training in business, finances, life, and health along with ongoing mentorship. To date, the UPG program in Bangladesh has helped more than two million households — or nine million people — lift themselves from extreme poverty.

As a participant, Nomita received business skills training as she grew her new beef fattening livelihood, critical life skills training, and support from a coach who guided her along the way. A few months into the program, Nomita had diversified her business to include selling other livestock and vegetables, and she was able to purchase more land. As Nomita continued to improve the overall standard of living for her household, COVID-19 reached Bangladesh.

Fortunately for Nomita and other participants, the Graduation approach is designed to absorb shocks and pivot in the face of unforeseen circumstances. With help from her coach, Nomita was able to take advantage of her diversified livelihoods and shift to prioritizing the cultivation and selling of leafy vegetables to local bazaars as lockdowns closed grocery stores — not only was Nomita’s livelihood continuing to feed and support her own family, but she was also able to provide fresh food to her community.

Additionally, Nomita’s coach helped her learn about digital currency and connect to government support systems through the Graduation program. When the pandemic was at its worst, Nomita was able to receive a digital cash transfer of BDT 1500 from the government as a needed safety net. Through her life skills training, Nomita also learned critical hygienic practices such as proper hand-washing technique. She was able to pass on this potentially lifesaving knowledge to her family to protect them from the virus.

COVID-19 continues to threaten food security and economic stability of millions of people like Nomita, and it is critical to put into place rights-based social protection programs that prioritize the immediate and long-term needs of the world’s most vulnerable people. The Graduation approach is a holistic program that attends to all facets of a person’s life, and is designed to build resilience in the face of shocks. Nomita is the face of resilience, and with support from the Graduation approach, her livelihood is in stable condition and she is able to put food on her family’s table and continue on her path out of poverty and into a brighter future.

Breaking the cycle of extreme poverty by providing a pathway out of persistent uncertainty and destitution through our Graduation programs.

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