Geography matters: a territorial approach to food and nutrition security

©Finbarr O'Reilly/Reuters

Every year, millions of people in the Sahel and West Africa face hunger as levels of food and nutrition insecurity become critical. It is a familiar problem that tends to be dealt with within a top-down, national framework. Yet purely national analyses, rather than territorial and local ones, can mask pockets of poverty, hunger and malnutrition concentrated in specific geographic areas. If we look, for example, at stunting, a chronic state of undernutrition among children under the age of five, the national average in Benin is 34%. 

Territorial analyses tell us more though. In Borgou, stunting affects 41% of children under five, and in Benin’s largest and northernmost region, Alibori, 40% are affected. In the Plateau region, it is 39%, which is the same for Atacora in northwestern Benin. In Ghana, the national average for stunting is 23% but reaches 37% and 32% in the Northern and Upper East regions respectively. If we are to design and implement policy responses to solve problems like stunting, we must take an approach that understands the specific territorial dynamics of particular areas.

Mapping territorial disparities helps. The Cadre harmonisé is an analytical framework that identifies geographical areas and populations in different phases of food insecurity, colour-coded to denote whether it is minimal, stressed, crisis, emergency and famine. This map highlights significant disparities in food and nutrition security across and within countries. Northeastern Nigeria, Mali, and the broader Lake Chad basin, encompassing Chad, Niger and Nigeria, in particular, show high spatial concentrations of critically food insecure populations.

Spatial disparities in food and nutrition security

Spatial disparities arise because different territories have unique characteristics: demographic and socio-economic profiles, social and cultural norms, natural resources, organisations, different layers of decision-making, as well as exposure to conflict. These unique characteristics are context-specific and vary from one territory to another. Top-down, national-level approaches to food and nutrition security do not sufficiently consider the needs of local people or include them in policymaking processes. In contrast, a territorial approach promotes grassroots interventions and empowers local actors. It also recognises that all regions–not only urban areas–have development potential.

Making a territorial approach a reality on the ground

How rural and urban territories are managed has major implications for food and nutrition security policies. People and places need to be at the centre of development strategies that create jobs, especially in remote areas where synergies between rural and urban areas must be harnessed. People and places need to be central to investments in basic social services in health, education, water-sanitation-hygiene, rural finance and family planning.

Making a territorial approach a reality on the ground requires several conditions:

First, it requires an understanding of how the unique characteristics of a particular area influence its development potential. Second, it needs a multi-level governance system to enable the horizontal and vertical coordination of policies across sectors, and national and sub-national levels of government. Third, it demands a multi-sectoral and multi-actor perspective that responds to the diverse yet interconnected needs and expectations of local populations. It involves connecting actors in urban and rural areas, boosting trade, diversifying rural economies and facilitating growth in employment. Fourth, it is important to equip those local actors with sufficient decision-making power, and technical and planning capacity to formulate and implement policies at the local level. Fifth, we must supply better data and tools at the sub-national level so that policymakers can adopt place-based approaches and identify the bottlenecks hampering food security. Last but not least, a territorial approach needs political will and leadership to succeed.

The most sustainable means of designing appropriate territorial policies is to do it in concert with those who will benefit from those policies. Local ownership and leadership over policy processes that include all actors is at the heart of a territorial approach. It is also about enhancing opportunities for all, particularly for women and youth, and targeting spending to the most vulnerable places and populations, as advocated by the Global Alliance for Resilience (AGIR) in the Sahel and West Africa.

Two panel discussions that get to the heart of implementing a territorial approach to food and nutrition security will take place at the 33rd Annual Meeting of the Food Crisis Prevention Network in Cotonou, Benin, from 4-6 December 2017. During these discussions, we will be asking ministers, mayors, parliamentarians, farmers, technical experts, and civil society and private sector representatives to inform the debate on designing and implementing food and nutrition security policies adapted to local contexts and involving local actors.

Tune into this vital discussion on territorial approaches to food and nutrition security via Livestream from Cotonou. And have your say via our special social media channels.


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©OECD Observer No 313, Q1 2018

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