The Horn of Africa is in the middle of another drought that is disastrous to millions of people living in pastoral areas. The early signs were clear way back in 2020 but the humanitarian response will, as so often, only kick in once the crisis is at its peak and lives and livelihoods have been lost. It could be very different if predictions were more reliable and could lead to early action that better prepares and protects livelihoods in advance of a crisis.

It was against this backdrop that two weeks ago, on 21 April, the Observatory convened a meeting of partners and stakeholders in Nairobi to co-identify and develop a set of ‘challenge questions’ that can guide the Observatory’s choice of research and other actions to enhance Food Security Early Action in East Africa’s dryland areas. The meeting was also an opportunity to initiate and extend collaboration opportunities and hold discussions with Observatory leaders and its Advisory group.

Alan Duncan, Observatory lead from the University of Edinburgh explained key elements of the Observatory model. First, through its partners it will complement other actions by filling critical gaps, it fosters collaboration among stakeholders, and it takes a ‘solutions’ focus that will result in leading edge and applicable innovations. Second, the Observatory will convene expertise and resources to research and tackle several ‘challenge questions’ that stakeholders identify as critical in order that we can overcome barriers to effective early action on food security.

Thereafter, the one-day meeting was a true working session in which the 50 or so participants brainstormed challenges and opportunities, sketching out areas for future focus.

Early action challenges

Participant discussion (credit: University of Edinburgh/Chloe Kippen)

In brainstorming mode, participants identified some key challenges holding back progress on early action for food and nutrition security in the face of climate/food system shocks.

These included: Inadequate (insufficiently relevant, timely and coordinated) evidence for policy formulation; funding that tends to be driven by immediate shock impacts rather than the needs for early and anticipatory actions; poor coordination among state and non-state actors; little integration of local knowledge in the solutions from research; inaccurate and insufficient data to inform prediction models; trust issues holding back data sharing and use; limited cost benefit analysis and evidence on the outcomes of forecast-based action approaches; and shifting political priorities that often lead to short project timelines and turnover of key people.

Early action challenge questions

Sorting ‘problem’ cards (credit: Community Jameel/Nathaniel Daudrich)

Working in groups, small teams of participants drafted five challenge questions that will later be refined through the Observatory:

  1. Coordinating early action challenge question: What are effective and proven mechanisms to increase coordination and collaboration among and between actors at all levels in the food security early action space?
  2. Financing for early action challenge question: How can governments be influenced to 1) increase use of a more reliable evidence base; 2) lead the way with funding for early action; 3) increase trust and accountability; and 4) facilitate donor coordination for anticipatory action, and by doing so, increase third party funding for anticipatory action?
  3. Data for effective early action challenge question: How do we best design and develop effective data- and evidence-driven prediction systems to inform and guide evidence-based early action?
  4. Trust in data and evidence for early action challenge questions: How do we best incentivise all relevant actors to develop and embrace and continuously improve and use a unified and trusted framework for robust data / evidence generation? And, how do we best enhance the capacities of policy makers and communities to make meaningful contributions/decisions on early action on food and nutrition security?
  5. Effective early action at community level challenge question: How can early action best lead to enhanced community-level food security in the face of changing climate?

Next steps

Following this first community of practice meeting, the Observatory team will establish light communication mechanisms so the small teams can refine the five challenge questions teams before they are posted as calls for action that people can propose to work on. A series of virtual ‘mini dialogues’ will also be organized to dive deeper into some specific issues arising

Reflecting on the meeting and looking to the longer term, Guyo Roba, newly-appointed Head of the Jameel Observatory said that “we must much more proactively prepare for crises before they happen.” Getting ahead of shocks, he says, calls for “greater commitment by donors and governments to anticipatory actions, better mechanisms for inter-institutional coordination as well as stronger and more trustworthy data. We must also better tap into the unique knowledge and solutions that communities have.”

Some participants in the Nairobi community of practice meeting (credit: University of Edinburgh/Chloe Kippen)

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