Lessons from Hunger Assessment in Africa

By Mark & Susan Hatfield on October 2, 2017 | Print

Photo from IMB.org

In the early 90s I witnessed a humanitarian committee wrestle with how to distribute a shipping container of high energy biscuits. Cultural issues became the defining guide as they discussed options. Everyone in the targeted distribution area lived in some level of poverty, and they had no objective way to narrow down who had the highest level of need. So the decision was made to give every person one small package of biscuits.  

In just a few hours the 20 foot ocean container was emptied with the biscuits consumed in one day. The donor agency intended to make a long term difference in the lives of the most needy, but the shipment was no more than a token gift to the entire community. I promised myself then that I would never be involved in this type of food distribution.

I am asked regularly by other organizations to fund a feeding program for people who are in need due to drought, long term poverty, or other chronic problems. When I ask what the plan is for assessing the needs in the community, I rarely get any type of objective information.  

We all have limited resources. Time, personnel, logistical support and funds restrict what we can do in a feeding situation. In order for these limited resources to make the largest impact we need to learn to assess well and use that information to develop a plan of response.

Here are some methods for assessment:

  • Glean information from a broad spectrum of sources. International and local media, web searches and governmental data are all important in understanding the scope of the problem.
  • Get inside the community. You need to see first hand the effects of hunger on the community.  
  • Interview local leaders, hospitals, clinics and health posts to gain information and develop trusted partners who have a vested interest in the community. Talk with mothers of young children who can give you information that will be instrumental in developing a plan for response. Talk with shopkeepers about supply and pricing issues.
  • Gather objective data. For example, one method is to measure mid-upper arm band circumferences for children under 5 years old and for lactating and pregnant mothers. This data can tell you if you are dealing with hunger or long term malnutrition. Measuring height to weight ratios for children is also a good method to gain critical information. Each of these scenarios requires a different approach in your response.

There is not one single method of assessment that is adequate to formulate a feeding response plan.  It takes a balance of information gathered from a wide range of resources.  Assessing hunger situations is not a quick exercise and weak assessments will yield weak responses.

As you begin to apply methods to assess needs, here are a few more tips:

  • Solutions for long-term malnutrition are very different than acute hunger. The response plan you develop needs to focus on the main problem. For example, projects for cyclical hunger due to drought can focus on supplemental feeding. This is where a ration pack is given out that is planned to last a certain period of time and does not supply 100% of the caloric needs. This assumes there is another source of food no matter how inadequate it is. When chronic malnutrition is the problem, a therapeutic feeding center could be set up where prepared food is given directly to those in need and weight can be checked periodically, even daily, to assure the patient is getting the nutritional inputs that are needed.
  • Dialogue with leadership from other organizations who might be involved in a response to the target communities. Duplication of response is a common problem in disaster situations. Sometimes community leaders are reluctant to disclose assistance that is being planned for their communities, in the hopes they will receive more or in fear that what is planned will not happen. They might think that two or three birds in the bush might yield one in the hand.  Duplicating limited resources is not good stewardship and due diligence needs to be done to assure this does not happen.
  • Train locals in proper assessment methods, ideally before a crisis situation presents itself. Many project directors do not value the training of local community members in good hunger assessment methods until they are in the middle of a crisis. During a crisis it is difficult to train those living within the affected population to carry out assessments that are objective. Assessors from outside the community will be more objective; however, the views and information from local community members is valuable and has to be included in decision making.
  • Continue to assess needs throughout the life of the response. This may lead to major changes in the response plan mid project. The goal is not to complete the plan but help people survive through a hunger crisis and be poised to return to a normal or even better quality of life than before the crisis.

I have seen babies being assessed in feeding centers that we knew would not live another day. It was simply too late to avoid the ravages of severe malnutrition due to long term hunger. I have also had the blessing to see lives changed and death avoided because of proper assessment and response. No one organization can do it all when it comes to feeding and hunger. Some would say it “takes a village” to make a difference. I believe it takes the Kingdom of God coming together with wise assessment and response plans that effectively apply available resources to hunger issues, while demonstrating the love of Christ in a physical way.  

Mark Hatfield has been involved in international community development for the 30 years he has resided in Sub-Saharan Africa. Mark and his wife Susan currently serve as the Sub-Saharan Africa Area Directors for Baptist Global Response. They have assisted in numerous hunger crises in Africa, and together they have trained many groups of national and international NGO workers in current community development and disaster response methods.