8.4.1  Use of coping strategies as indictors of food insecurity

Food insecurity is a matter of global concern, although it is most frequently observed in Sub-Saharan Africa. One of the most common methods for identifying food-insecure households or regions is to look at the frequency and types of coping strategies.

Coping strategies are social responses used to offset threats to a household’s food and economic resources in times of hardship. The different types of coping strategies are markers of the severity of conditions, often categorised into four distinct stages of food insecurity.

Stage 1: Insurance strategies

The first stage of household food insecurity is marked by the initial shortage of food, or inability to provide sufficient quantities of food to all members of the household.

Households may have prepared for a food quantity shortfall, as in the case of seasonal production, by storing quantities of grain or owning livestock that can be quickly sold, traded, or used for food (in the case of agricultural societies). These are often referred to as insurance (reserve food crisis), and are not intended to be a main source of income or an integral part of income generation, simply crisis insurance. But, before any assets are sold, changes in diet and frequency of meals per day are the first adaptations undertaken. Rationing of food consumption is a very common response, and is started and planned generally far in advance of selling any assets. The frequency and severity of coping strategies practiced will vary according to the causes of the food shortage (chronic vs. crisis), kinds of households affected (agricultural vs. pastoral), local market conditions, and the absence or presence of relief programmes.

Box 8.1 sets out the most common stage 1 food security indicators.

Box 8.1  Stage 1 food insecurity indicators

  • Diet change (consuming less preferred foods such as corn instead of rice)
  • Meal frequency (decreasing the number of meals per day)
  • Gathering wild foods
  • Inter-household transfers and loans
  • Increased petty commodity production (firewood, charcoal, etc.)
  • Seeking daily labour
  • Diversifying activities and working for long hours.

Stage 2: Crisis strategies I

The second stage of food insecurity is marked by the sale of assets, specifically non-productive assets.

At this point, in the food security crisis, food consumption becomes more important than holding onto assets. Jewellery, goats, chickens, other livestock and any other asset that serves as crisis insurance would be sold. Generally, the assets that are preserved are those related to income generation, such as land, farming equipment, oxen and cattle. In addition to non-productive asset sales, the second stage also sees the onset of loans or credit from merchants (as opposed to family), which also has serious implications for the future security of the household and recovery to their original livelihood systems. Typical second stage indicators include those set out in Box 8.2 overleaf.

Box 8.2  Stage 2 food insecurity indicators

  • Sales of non-productive livestock
  • Sales of jewellery, insurance assets
  • Credit or loans from merchants
  • Temporary migration for work or land (days/week, days/month)
  • Skipping meals for entire days
  • Withdrawing children from school (school drop out).

Stage 3: Crisis strategies II

Stage 3 includes the sale of productive assets and the shift of the number one priority from asset preservation to food consumption.

At this point, all else has either failed to provide sufficient food quantities or the crisis has prolonged itself into a dire situation. All livestock remaining at this juncture will be sold, all personal items sold, possibly even the sale of housing material, and the pledging and/or sale of land or productive rights. This disposal of all assets ensures current survival, but severely jeopardises the future security (livelihood system) of the household. In the case of natural disasters, such as drought, many assets will be lost involuntarily, specifically livestock succumbing to disease or starvation. When the crisis has reached this stage, famine conditions have essentially set in. Indicators of stage three might include those set out in Box 8.3.

Box 8.3  Stage 3 food insecurity indicators

  • Sale of all livestock
  • Sale of productive equipment
  • Sale or mortgage of land
  • Redistribution of children (rare)
  • Migration.

Stop reading for a while and think of some of the coping strategies that are used in your community or in another community you know when food insecurity occurs.

Stage 4: Distress strategies

Stage 4 is the last in the line and represents complete destitution.

The household no longer exists as it once did. Permanent migration (either the whole or part of the household) occurs in order to attempt to resettle on suitable land, find wage labour or, more likely, to seek food aid assistance. Individuals are generally too weak to work and simply need food and care to survive. Box 8.4 overleaf highlights indicators of stage 4.

Box 8.4  Stage 4 food insecurity indicators

  • Permanent migration
  • Begging for food/resources
  • Complete dependence on external aid.

There is a spectrum of situations that may precipitate crises, possibly ranging from normal, seasonally linked low or zero production, to consecutive years of poor production, to natural disasters and armed conflict. Coping strategies need to be seen in context, and in complex emergencies the situation is different from those situations relating to consecutive seasons of crop failure or seasonal dips in the amount of stored food or resources to obtain food. For example, people suffering due to poor agricultural production might slowly move from stage 1 to stage 2 or 3, whereas in acute emergencies, people might be ‘shocked’ directly into strategies of state 3 or 4, due to sudden external forces such as a flood or armed conflict.

8.4  Indicators of household food insecurity

8.4.2  Dietary diversity score