The food aid, a vital livelihood provisioning intervention and an element of the relief-development continuum, aims to reduce the vulnerability to food security of extremely/chronic poor people in any humanitarian and development setting. The inclusion and exclusion errors of the General Food Distribution programme are the major challenges in Eastern Sudan operation. These errors have resulted due to lack of poverty and vulnerability data. WFP in partnership with UNHCR offers food assistance to some 7,000 refugee households which are defined as the vulnerable and food insecure based on the following criteria: households without an able-bodied and man between the ages of 24-59; single parent households; households with dependency ratio of 1:4 or more (dependent include all women and men below 24 and above)

Aforementioned criteria of GFD ( General Food Distribution) do not reflect the multifaceted aspects of vulnerability. As a result, many non-vulnerable refugee households may have identified as the food insecure and vulnerable households, thereby, have been eligible for the GFD programme. We often use the term ‘vulnerability’ in our work to explain the difficult situation or position of refugees in the context they are living in. In my opinion, the connotation of ‘vulnerability’ sometimes misleads us with the term ‘poverty’ while making any programmatic decision or targeting households for any relief assistance. As all fingers are not same, so are vulnerability and poverty of protracted refugees in any context.

 At this stage, I would like to expand the concept of vulnerability and its association with poverty to better explain the effectiveness of the above criteria. ‘Vulnerability’ is an important concept in both discussions of poverty and of livelihoods. Sometimes, we use the terms ‘vulnerability’ and ‘poverty’ as synonymous of each other. However, vulnerability is not the same as poverty, but they are strongly linked, and are mutually reinforcing. Coudouel and Hentschel (2000:34) say that “vulnerability is a broad phenomenon, encompassing not only income vulnerability but also such risks as those related to health, those resulting from violence, and those resulting from social exclusion-all of which can have dramatic effects on households”.  In other words, vulnerability is about insecurity, defenselessness, exposure to shock and hazards, and unequal power-structure. As Dercon (2005:3) observes, vulnerability is about the future: “we use vulnerability as the existence and the extent of a threat of poverty and destitution; the danger that is socially unacceptable level of well-being may materialize”. Vulnerability pushes people into poverty, keeps them in poverty and stops them from moving out of poverty and vice–versa.

 All poor people are vulnerable but not all vulnerable people are poor. “We are all vulnerable in some way from sickness, accidents, job loss, but vulnerability, or different vulnerabilities, are an important factor in the lives of poor people (Bankoff et al., 2004)” For an example, when poor refugee households lack asset, such as savings, to cope with the consequence of drought, they either borrow from neighbors or local shopkeepers to manage their needs, or migrate to other places for non-agriculture work, or sell their livestock as the last resort if any.  But the vulnerability for the extremely poor will likely to be severe during drought as they are socially marginalized, and do not have any asset; the extremely poor may start either begging or starving or selling child labor or trading sex to cope with crisis. This indicates that the extent of poverty influences the level of vulnerability and coping strategies of refugee households. A refugee household’s increased vulnerability in the face of repeated disasters can push it from relative wealth to poverty and from poverty to extreme poverty or destitution.

Poverty is increasingly understood to be multi-dimensional and the result of multiple deprivations: capability deprivation, low levels of material assets, and social or political marginalization that make it impossible for the poor to exercise rights (Altamirano et al., 2003; CPRC, 2005; Mehta, 2005; Rahman and Hossain, 1995; Sen, 2003). Poverty is thus thought about as current status, and often heavily associated with material/social status. It is the condition of possessing an income insufficient to maintain a minimal standard of living. Chronic Poverty Research Centre (CPRC) has classified the rural poverty into five categories: ‘always poor’, ‘usually poor’, ‘cyclically poor’, ‘occasionally poor’ and ‘never poor’. This suggests that the rural poverty is hierarchical that needs to be addressed through a holistic approach. Definitions of poverty are culturally specific, and thus relative to the social norms and expectations endemic to a given nation-state. However, the condition of absolute poverty (i.e. lacking the income to maintain a minimum diet) is acknowledged worldwide.The important aspect of poverty is to define the extreme/chronic poverty and transient/seasonal poverty in particular context. This helps effective targeting for any development project/programme.

 Poverty is the core dimension of vulnerability. The more the household is poor, the higher the household is vulnerable. The given criteria of General Food Distribution programme are mainly focused on the households’ composition, and do not explicitly manifest the household’s economic capabilities, the asset holding status and the coping strategies at the time of crises/shocks. As a result, some chronic poor or economically inactive and severe food insecure households may have disqualified as the non-vulnerable households according to the given criteria. The criteria neither reflect the extent of vulnerability of households nor indicate the level/degree of poverty.

Errors in targeting households with food aid hamper the ongoing drives of self-reliance for protracted refugees to an extent. During the recent livelihoods assessment, the study team experienced difficulties while facilitating the Focus Group Discussions (FGDs) with the refugee community leaders to capture their perception about the changes in refugee household livelihoods in last 12 months. The community leaders were reluctant to portrait the livelihoods improvementsin refugees; rather they attempted to present a deteriorated livelihoods situation of refugees’ which is not the case. Specifically, the community leaders described the economically active poor households as the most vulnerable and food insecure social group. They didn’t stratify the poor group further into two categories such as the economically active poor and the extremely poor. This may be happened either there is no extreme poverty in those camps or there are some extremely poor households but they were not considered because of their minority in the population. This issue needs to be unpacked through a vulnerability study in the camps. The study will help determine the characteristics of extreme poverty and transient/seasonal poverty.

Seasonal crises are not the symptom of extreme poverty. The team had a number of focus group discussions with different wealth groups and informal discussions with some representative households to capture the current livelihoods situation and seasonality. Seasonal crises such as limited work during agriculture off season are a common rural livelihoods phenomenon particularly for economically active poor (e.g. agriculture labor) and middle-income groups (e.g. sharecropping + agriculture labor). The team conducted interviews with a number of poor households to understand extreme poverty and their capability in coping with the seasonal crises. It found that all interviewed poor households are economically active, and successfully managed the recent crises/shocks (e.g. inadequate rainfall in the rain fed livelihoods zone) in the reporting year. Through triangulation, the team concluded that the information from the community leaders were not reliable. In fact, the long-term food assistance to refugees’ households leads to mental poverty rather than motivating them to become self-reliant. The long term food aid is associated with the chronic/extreme poverty, but not with the seasonal crises of economically active poor households.

The 2011 livelihoods assessment revealed that 15-20% of households from the middle-income and the better-off had access to food assistance programme. This confirms that the existing criteria are inadequate to screen out the non vulnerable households while the criteria screen out food insecure and vulnerable households without a member with disability. This has resulted inefficiencies in the programme. The consequences of exclusion error could be significant.

The challenge in targeting the most vulnerable households for food assistance will be addressed through a small scale quantitative survey at the household level that will enable UNHCR to define extreme poverty and vulnerability of households in the camps. A small scale quantitative survey together with qualitative assessment will help UNHCR-WFP to develop a vulnerability index, thereby, identifying the most food insecure and extremely poor households for food aid. This will contribute to align the targeting mechanism of TSI (Transitional Solutions Initiative), thereby, enhancing the ongoing efforts for the self-reliance of protracted refugees in Eastern Sudan. UNHCR and WFP in Eastern Sudan will work together to identify ways of addressing the challenge in 2014. Feedback from livelihoods experts will help shape up my thoughts further.

Khandaker Aminul Islam

Associate Livelihoods Officer

UNHCR Sub-Office for Eastern Sudan, Kassala

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