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In the Far North region of Cameroon, at the crossroads of the Lake Chad Basin, smallholders cultivate land with limited crop diversity, face unpredictable rains, and are displaced by conflict and insecurity. As a result, parents must reduce the quality and quantity of food they eat to prioritize their children, while some regretfully reduce how much they feed their children. The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated constraints, disrupting market access, health services, and livelihood activities.

Globally, the intensity and frequency of these shocks is increasing, substantially contributing to the stagnation and reversal of global improvements in food insecurity, and undernutrition and child wasting. In the second half of 2022, 222 million people were expected to face acute food insecurity, the highest number in nearly a decade. To prevent and manage food insecurity and undernutrition in Cameroon and beyond, the global community should plan for how to sustainably continue vital food assistance programs, while building more resilient food systems that provide equitable access to healthy diets.

Child Wasting Inspires Action but Funding Remains Fragmented

The rate of child wasting has risen across countries with and without humanitarian crises since 2016, driven in part by increased climate shocks and conflicts. This leaves children extremely susceptible to illnesses, as children experiencing acute malnutrition are 11 times more likely to die of common childhood illnesses than well-nourished children.

The rise in child wasting has renewed global commitments to prevent and manage it. The Global Action Plan on Child Wasting is the culmination of the efforts of a range of stakeholders, including the US Agency for International Development (USAID). One priority action for preventing wasting is improving access to nutritious foods through in-kind or cash social protection transfers to pregnant and lactating women and children aged six to 23 months. 

While donors often recognize the need for such programs, funding is fragmented, unpredictable, and insufficient. Costs and needs for supplemental food assistance are high — in fiscal year 2021, USAID spent $4.86 billion across 59 countries on food assistance and related programs. And despite the World Food Programme’s record levels of funding, it still had a shortfall of $5.2 billion in 2021, illuminating the substantial price tag attached to combating food insecurity.

Sustainable Investing Determines Food Assistance

As donors consider how to best use limited funds for food assistance, they question the sustainability of investments. This is often judged by whether future assistance is needed, or if the underlying issues have been resolved. Donors worry that the provision of supplementary food assistance does not fix the underlying drivers of food insecurity and undernutrition, raising questions about how appropriate and effective it is to continuously provide. 

Despite these concerns, it is necessary that donors and governments create long-term plans for supplemental food assistance. The COVID-19 pandemic is a stark reminder of the need for strong social safety net programs. In Cameroon, the ongoing separatist conflict combined with the spread of COVID-19 was a fatal combination that was exacerbated by weakened international and national food assistance. These programs can provide a sustainable platform to scale supplemental food assistance. Indeed, the newly reauthorized U.S. Global Food Security Strategy suggests strengthening adaptive and shock-responsive social protection to achieve short- and long-term development goals. And even as incomes rise, the need for supplemental food programs often remains. For instance, an estimated 43 percent of infants in the US participated in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) in fiscal year 2021, illustrating the expansive need for food assistance despite rising incomes.

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In order to meet these long-term needs, the global community is paying greater attention to sustainable financing for nutrition. A gradual transition to national plans and resources ensures that strong government ownership and reliable, sufficient financing from domestic revenues is in place. USAID Advancing Nutrition, USAID’s flagship multi-sectoral nutrition project, has developed guidance on how to generate such plans. 

Social Safety Net Programs Necessary in Cameroon 

Economic, health, conflict, and climate shocks will recur, along with the need for food assistance for those most vulnerable to undernutrition. Many families in Cameroon, specifically, do not have access to government social safety net programs. The social support available in their communities is limited, as family and friends face the same structural barriers to accessing healthy diets, quality health care, and livelihoods. Access to donor-funded supplemental food assistance is unpredictable and eligibility is not transparent. 

Donors and governments in Cameroon, among other countries, can work in concert to develop coordinated plans to fund and implement supplemental food assistance programs, gradually transitioning these programs to government plans and resources over time. When nutritionally vulnerable family members face deprivation, food assistance is critical for health and well-being. Global actors should heed lessons from increasing global shocks and rates of undernutrition, and rethink what sustainability looks like for food assistance programs to ensure they exist for those who need them. 

Abigail Conrad, Ph.D., is an associate director on the Nutrition Team at Results for Development and was previously an associate scientist at Abt Associates. She researches nutrition and agriculture in low- and middle-income countries, and supports implementers and policymakers to improve the use of evidence and learning in program design and implementation. She holds a Ph.D. in anthropology from American University. 

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