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Can We End Famine As We Know It In Our Lifetime? Is Technology the Solution?

By Wayan Vota on May 18, 2016

“Our policy objective in the aid community, should be to end famine as we know it in our lifetime.”

That was the challenge presented to us by Andrew Natsios, former Administrator, USAID, at Transforming Global Food Security, a series of discussions on preventing famine through improved technological innovation at the Center for Strategic and International Studies on May 11th.

You can watch the full event, but there were really two main questions I felt we were trying to answer in the discussion: what can technology tell us about the drivers of food insecurity, and would policy makers use that information to make sound policy decisions?

Join us at ICTforAg for a follow-on panel discussion on food security with Christopher Burns, USAID; Hedwig Siewertsen, AGRA; Stewart Collis, aWhere; Daniele Tricarico, GSMA; Dr. Debisi Araba, Harvard Kennedy School; Wayan Vota, FHI 360.

What Can Technology Tell Us About Food Insecurity?

Today we have amazing tools of technology that can sense and predict food insecurity months before it happens. From satellites circling the earth, to ground-based remote sensors in the oceans, rivers, and farms, we can forecast weather events with high degrees of accuracy. In fact, aWhere has created a global agronomic weather database with 1.6 million ‘virtual weather stations’ at 9km intervals.

This remote sensing capacity is augmented by on-the-ground reporting in more than 20 countries through FEWS-Net, the US Government’s premier famine early warning system. By combing technology inputs and human-observed data into complex algorithms, FEWS-Net routinely predicts famine months in advance and sends that information to policy makers around the world.

However, we shouldn’t get too caught up in meteorological predictions, as conflict, labor markets, food supply systems, nutrition, livelihoods, and social inclusion, among many others are also drivers of food security. We need to get just as good at identifying and measuring these factors, as we are with the weather, so that households, communities, and governments at the local level are able survive and thrive during food insecure periods.

Do Policy Makers Make Better Decisions?

There is a JadedAid card that showcases what I think is a major problem when technologists get too excited about the data we produce: “A research grant to find evidence that evidence-based research for policy makers is used by policy makers to make evidence-based policy.

Sadly, too often smart, data-driven recommendations are met with inaction and indifference. Food is a political weapon, it has been used to reward allies and punish detractors from time memorial, and we need to find ways to incentive data-driven decision making over political expediency.

There are at least three ways we can do that with technology:

  • Make the improved data more visible, accessible, and operational. Sharing the data with national, state, and local actors will increase demand for smart, effective solutions. Public dashboards are an example of this recommendation in action.
  • Push the newly obtained and improved data sub nationally. Rather than posting the data and hoping it will be looked at, develop systems to actively push the data to sub-national actors. Taking Ethiopia as an example, the goal would be to get the data to stakeholders at the district level.
  • Create improved mechanisms for dialogue and action planning. When the data is pushed, it needs to be accompanied by an opportunity to discuss implications and develop specific operational action plans by identifying key stakeholder responsibilities and tracking that accountability through to completion at sub-national and district levels.

At the same time, technology in of itself is not the complete solution. We need to bring forth the human factor, the political economy, and the reality of food as a tool of governance – for good and bad.

If you’ve read this far, you really should be joining us for ICTforAg, a premier conference on the intersection of technology, agriculture, and development.

The action-packed ICTforAg agenda features keynote presentations, lightning talks, learning lunches and breakout sessions on these and other issues surrounding food security for the millions of smallholder farmers around the world, and the agricultural value chains that support them.

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Written by
Wayan Vota co-founded ICTworks. He also co-founded Technology Salon, MERL Tech, ICTforAg, ICT4Djobs, ICT4Drinks, JadedAid, Kurante, OLPC News and a few other things. Opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of his employer, any of its entities, or any ICTWorks sponsor.
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