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Brussels, Friday 11 June 2010

Food assistance at a glance


On 31 March 2010 the European Commission adopted a Communication on humanitarian food assistance. The document sets out a strategic framework aimed at reinforcing European humanitarian operations to combat food insecurity in humanitarian crises.


Over recent years, hunger and malnutrition have been steadily increasing across the globe, and today over a billion people are food insecure. Out of this billion, around 100 million people find themselves in a crisis situation, facing acute food insecurity to the point where their lives are endangered. Recently, significant progress has been made in analysing the nature and causes of hunger in emergency situations, and towards finding the most effective way of providing support to vulnerable populations.

This includes going beyond the mere distribution of food an looking, for instance, at how to help victims better nourish themselves by conserving their livelihoods, or distributing cash to allow them to buy the food of their choice on the local market, thereby also aiding local farmers.

These new approaches are set out in detail in the Commission Communication on humanitarian food assistance, along with a set of core principles aimed at optimising the impact of European humanitarian aid in the area of food security.


A consensus has emerged among experts and specialists on what works in dealing with hunger and malnutrition in emergency situations. After some years of conducting pilot programmes, we now have important evidence in support of this approach. Now is therefore the right time to use this evidentiary base to work out better-tailored intervention strategies.


The Communication aims to ensure that all those involved in EU food assistance operate within a common framework, analysing emergency needs in the same manner, devising appropriate responses and implementing food assistance programmes more effectively.

This common framework encompasses the following principles:

Adhering to the humanitarian principles of impartiality, neutrality and independence and give priority to the most urgent responses;

Taking all necessary measures to analyse the causes of food insecurity among the affected populations and considering response strategies tailored to specific needs;

Involving the beneficiaries at all stages of organising aid so that our understanding of the situation and the responses we provide fit the realities on the ground;

Tailoring our resources so as to allow an effective and appropriate response;

Ensuring that our food assistance protects and supports livelihoods and does not inadvertently harm the beneficiary populations;

Ensuring that the measures we take have the best possible impact on the complex and often fatal problem of malnutrition, particularly with regard to pregnant women and children;

Closely coordinating humanitarian and development initiatives to ensure that short‑term and long-term needs are addressed together and in a sustainable manner;

Focusing on preventing and reducing the risk of disaster with a view to minimizing the effects of future natural disasters;

Enhancing the capacity of the humanitarian system to provide a coordinated and effective response to severe food insecurity.


The Communication was drawn up by DG ECHO, the European Commission's Directorate-General for Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection, with the support of its vast worldwide network of experts within the field. It is also the final product of several months of close consultations between the Commission and its partners in humanitarian food assistance (United Nations, agencies of the Red Cross/Red Crescent and NGOs). These are the very same partners who implement the humanitarian programmes financed by the Commission on the ground, are in regular contact with the beneficiaries of the aid and work hard to represent the interests of local populations. Other humanitarian donors both inside and outside the European Union were also consulted, as were prominent academic and research institutions with particular expertise in this field.


Hunger and malnutrition are often the result of a sudden crisis, but in many developing countries malnutrition and food insecurity are also a chronic scourge with structural causes. Whereas humanitarian instruments are employed in crisis situations, development instruments are used to combat food insecurity in the long term. The Communication on humanitarian food assistance mainly addresses the problem of food insecurity in situations of emergency and transition. The Communication on food security, on the other hand, provides a framework for achieving food security in the long term and for developing the capacity of countries to manage acute food shortages in the future.


Responses are tailored to the type of situation faced by the population.

1. Food shortage

General food hand-outs;

Targeted food hand-outs (to a specific part of the population);

Conditional food hand-outs, e.g. in return for work or instruction;

Distribution of aid towards regaining a livelihood, to ensure that food production is resumed (e.g. distribution of seed, instruction, veterinary care, water and fodder for livestock, emergency reduction of livestock numbers).

2. Lack of access to food (for instance when food prices become unaffordable on local markets)

Targeted or general distribution of cash or vouchers;

Conditional targeted or general distribution of cash or vouchers, e.g. in return for work or instruction;

Distribution of aid towards regaining a livelihood to ensure that food production is resumed (e.g. distribution of seed, instruction, veterinary care, water and fodder for livestock, emergency reduction of livestock numbers);

Implementing projects to improve access to or the functioning of markets in the areas affected by the crisis (e.g. emergency roads, rehabilitation of bridges, market information support).

Food assistance can also be employed to protect and develop the livelihoods of a population affected by a crisis, so as to prevent people from taking actions which, in the short or medium term, might jeopardise their livelihoods, food security or nutritional status (e.g. selling their seed or accumulating debt).

3. Poor utilisation of food

Distribution of cooking equipment and food stocks (e.g. drinking water, kitchen utensils, cooking fuel);

Instruction and awareness-raising with respect to nutrition and good nutritional practices.

The Commission's food assistance programmes will make use of all opportunities to support and promote dietary practices that are beneficial to infants and children. In particular, food assistance projects financed by the Commission will avoid discouraging or interrupting breastfeeding.

4. Widespread acute malnutrition or micronutrient deficiencies

Therapeutic feeding centres for people suffering from severe malnutrition with medical complications: stabilisation centres or intensive nutritional rehabilitation centres;

Community therapeutic feeding centres for people suffering from severe malnutrition without medical complications: ambulatory nutritional rehabilitation centres;

Distribution of food supplements to moderately malnourished persons, or more generally to all persons at risk: ambulatory nutritional rehabilitation centres or broad food supplement programmes for all children under the age of five ('blanket feeding');

Distribution of nutritional supplements (e.g. vitamin A or folic acid distribution or enhancement of micronutrients in food);

Awareness-raising with respect to nutrition and dietary diversity.

5. Complementary measures

The Commission advocates complementary integrated programming to ensure that humanitarian needs are addressed holistically and effectively. In addition to food assistance measures directly responding to nutritional needs, certain complementary measures (such as public health measures) may be vital even though they have no direct impact on access to food. Below are some examples of complementary measures which might be financed by the Commission:

Providing populations affected by a food crisis with health care, drinking water, sanitation and other public health measures to reduce the risk of epidemics closely associated with malnutrition (e.g. diarrhoea, malaria, measles);

Providing cash to meet the basic needs of a family (e.g. for health care, goods, sanitation or education), so as to prevent money intended for food being used for other purposes;

Supporting 'reactive' or 'curative' humanitarian protection measures where security problems might be encountered during a food crisis (e.g. ensuring access to fields outside refugee camps or protecting against abuse and exploitation at points of distribution).


Projects financed by European Commission humanitarian aid

Niger: Save the Children UK – Tessaoua

In Tessaoua in the south-east of the country, 8 400 families (close to 60 000 people) among the region's poorest are receiving € 30 per month as from March 2010 for the six months preceding the next harvest. In return, the families receive instruction aimed at improving their children's nutrition and hygiene. This project meets two immediate goals:

* to improve the families' knowledge of malnutrition and measures to prevent it, and to provide them with enough cash to buy the necessary food;

* thanks to these funds, to prevent indebtedness and/or the sale of family assets during this difficult period by ensuring that productive assets (goats, seed or the like) are not sold, allowing the family to keep the entire income from the coming harvest.

Burkina Faso: FAO – Sahel region

In one of the regions most stricken by drought, endangering both livestock and the populations depending on it, the FAO is helping more than 2 000 households to keep their herds alive. Distributing fodder (which has become excessively expensive for most families) in sufficient quantities and/or vaccinating livestock not only keep the animals alive, but also lead to a considerable increase in the production of milk, which is an essential element in the diet of the livestock farmers' children.




General food security

Chronic food insecurity

Acute food crisis putting livelihoods at risk

Humanitarian emergency

Famine/ humanitarian disaster








Acute malnutrition (weight/height index <-2 z-scores)

< 3%

> 3% but < 10%, usual scale, stable

10-15%, > usual, increasing

15%, > usual, increasing


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