Food Security Information Meeting Calls for More, Better Data

In November 2015, the Food Security Information Network (FSIN) and the African Union Commission (AUC) held a technical consultation on data for food and nutrition security resilience in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The meeting focused on increasing the availability and use of the right types of data in order to improve countries’ capacity to monitor and achieve food and nutrition security goals. Representatives from 28 African countries participated, as did representatives from various regional institutions, development partners, NGOs, academic institutions, and the private sector.

While policymakers throughout Africa have made strong commitments to food security initiatives such as CAADP and the post-2015 SDGs, there remains a need for improved collaboration between regional and national actors on data collection, transparency, and information-sharing. The FSIN-AUC meeting was broken down into four themes:

  1. Food and nutrition security analysis: data availability, access and analysis;
  2. Resilience analysis: data availability, access and analysis;
  3. Data governance and institutional capacities; and
  4. Innovations in data production, data collection and data sharing to fill national and regional gaps in knowledge.

Under the first theme (food and nutrition security analysis), participants reviewed existing food and nutrition security indicators and measurement methods, beginning with an overview of the work of FSIN’s Technical Working Group on Measuring Food and Nutrition Security. This group has reviewed 140 food and nutrition security indicators and has identified Africa south of the Sahara as the region with the largest data gaps. The group has also stressed that food and nutrition indicators need to focus on more than just calories to truly capture the various dimensions of food and nutrition security and need to look at the specific needs of different populations at each stage of life. The group called for four areas to receive high priority: 1) improving national food balance sheets to use as a basis for understanding the nutritional value of various foods; 2) increasing the availability of price data at all levels; 3) improving food consumption metrics, especially at the household level; and 4) ensuring the collection and accessibility of reliable anthropometric data.

Participants at the FSIN-AUC meeting supported these recommendations, emphasizing that the plethora of indicators currently in use to analyze food and nutrition security complicate both research and policymaking; these indicators need to be clarified and narrowed down to a core set of the most useful ones. At the same time, participants also emphasized that this core set of indicators also needs to be flexible enough to take into account local and country-level situations and different contexts (for example, indicators for humanitarian policies in times of crisis versus indicators for long-term development goals). Local, national, and regional policymakers need to play a role in data collection and analysis so that they gain a better understanding of the role that data plays in effective policymaking; increasing this local involvement will require improvements to many countries’ data collection and information management systems (for example, the creation of a government body or mechanism to coordinate the collection of food and nutrition-related data across different sectors, such as agriculture and health services). Participants also called for further coordination between regional and country-level policies.

The second theme (resilience analysis) focused on existing efforts to define and measure resilience. Resilience is a relatively new concept, and thus a clear, common definition still needs to be established. Participants emphasized that policymakers and development practitioners need to be better included in discussions surrounding resilience in order to understand the concept in a more practical way. Utilizing existing resilience data collection efforts and lessons learned will be crucial in moving toward a more harmonized, accessible definition of the concept; for example, the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) can offer insights into the challenges it has faced in collecting and using resilience data.

The discussion also presented a structurally integrated matrix of indicators for resilience (SIMIR) as a potential platform to collect harmonized metrics on resilience and to inform national and regional data collection efforts. Regional and national institutions will both need to play a leading role in developing researchers’ and policymakers’ capacity to develop and use such a platform. This will include providing training to both government experts and development partners.

Under the third theme (data governance and institutional capacities), participants discussed how to improve access to and use of information by enhancing regional and national coordination and by establishing agreed-upon standards for data quality, quantity, and diversity. One of the first issues addressed was the need to link food and nutrition data with data from other sectors, including the agricultural sector and the health services sector. Efforts by FSIN in Sudan to establish such an inter-sectoral knowledge-sharing platform were put forth as best practices to be built upon throughout the region. Participants also discussed the importance of including local governments and administrative units in data collection efforts in order to increase local ownership and allow for more effective coordination and decision-making at the local level.

Many African countries, particularly south of the Sahara, faces a significant lack of even the most basic data for many food security, nutrition security, and resilience indicators. As such, and as set forth in the Malabo Declaration in 2014, a first step in improving data collection and governance should be to identify a minimum core set of reliable, useful indicators and to establish within that set a minimum quality requirement. Once these factors are in place, policymakers will then need to be trained to properly use this data to enact effective policies. National Statistics Offices (NSOs) also need to be properly developed and coordinated in order to encourage national ownership of important data, data transparency and accessibility, and a more systematic data collection approach.

Finally, the meeting’s fourth theme focused on how innovations in data collection, analysis, and information-sharing can help fill existing knowledge gaps in the region. Such innovations include the recent push for “open data”, meaning data that is free for use and republication; remote sensing data from satellites; and data received from mobile devices. One challenge associated with all of these new technologies, however, is that they can sometimes result in an overwhelming amount of information, not all of which will be relevant or useful. Higher data volumes also bring up issues of increased security and privacy issues. Addressing both of these challenges will require increased collaboration between the public and private sectors.

The needs of local communities also need to remain a priority in data collection efforts, participants emphasized. The data collected should center on what farmers and local populations need to know. In addition, incentives should be put in place to encourage local communities to share their knowledge.

Overall, the FSIN-AUC meeting called for national governments throughout SSA to strengthen their commitment to data collection, analysis, and information-sharing and to make the best use of existing data to prevent any duplication of efforts. In addition, development partners are called to support capacity-building efforts at both the regional and the national levels and to better align their efforts with countries’ policies and priorities.

By: Sara Gustafson, IFPRI

Photo credit:Flickr: S.Malyon/CIAT