The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) launched the remote food security monitoring system (mVAM) in July 2022, collecting data via telephone interviews from households across Bangladesh. The September 2022 report mentioned that on a national average, 83% of 1,200 households surveyed were food secure or marginally food secure, as per WFP's comprehensive food security indicator, and 17% of households reported moderate to severe food insecurity in September. The August report mentioned that 22% of the surveyed households were moderately food insecure.
These reports, especially the July and August 2022 ones, created a stir in the country as some media outlets assumed, based on these findings, that there was going to be a 'famine' in the coming months.
But do the reports really say that? To find out, The Business Standard talked to Mr Takahiro Utsumi, Head of Research, Assessment and Monitoring (RAM) at WFP in Bangladesh.
What is food security and how do you measure it?
The term Food Security is a bit strict in the sense that it includes several things. As per WFP's definition 'Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.'
It depends on many things as it's a comprehensive measurement. It not only considers food consumption but also food-based and livelihood-based coping strategies which measure households' resilience to withstand shocks in the short and long term.
Therefore, marginally secure is not a high-risk condition for better-coping households. It is risky for medium and poor households who are applying negative coping techniques [techniques such as using up funds from their savings, not eating three meals a day] for a long time.
The Bangladesh Food Security and Vulnerability Monitoring (mVAM) for July and August 2022 garnered a lot of attention in the media. To what extent are the surveys representative of the actual situation in the entire country?
The remote food security monitoring system (mVAM) was launched in July 2022 and collects data via telephone interviews from households across Bangladesh. Data has been collected from 1,200 respondents across eight divisions each month since July, thus the report is entirely based on these surveyed households.
The mVAM survey was launched to provide near real-time analytics on food security and essential needs analysis across the country. It allows for assessing the impact of shocks, including the developing global food crises, the Covid-19 pandemic, and floods regularly.
Note that phone interviews are more prone to bias and should be interpreted carefully. It is a random survey and produces a most likely snapshot of the current situation, while it does not produce official statistics. It is not a panel survey, but the economic categorisation of the households is based on their occupation, and thus, it is assumed there is homogeneity for comparison.
The media has recently been citing the findings of the August report which states '68% of households struggled to access food through different coping mechanisms across the country.' Could you elaborate on how these 'coping mechanisms' are measured and what exactly it entails?
We used two sets of coping indicators here.
Reduced food-based coping strategies (rCSI) scores are a proxy variable for food insecurity. The rCSI is based on the frequency and severity of coping mechanisms for households reporting food consumption problems and assesses the stress level of households due to a food shortage. A high score indicates a higher stress level, and a lower score means that the household is less stressed.
The Livelihood-based Coping Strategies Index (LCSI) builds on understanding the behaviours vulnerable households engage in to meet their immediate food security and essential needs in times of crisis or shock.
The indicators mentioned above explore the mechanism or adaptation of the households to cope with the challenging situation and meet access to food. Such as, it looks at whether households sell household products, spend savings, compromise on the quality and quantity of food, sell assets, borrow, engage in illegal acts or beg, etc.
Every three or four categories are scored and classified as stress, crisis and emergency coping. These are all negative coping mechanisms. Households with any negative coping, in the short or long run, is alarming, as it indicates their diminishing ability to respond to different shocks in future.
In our August report, 68% of the surveyed households in eight divisions reported those negative coping strategies.
Food insecurity appears to have significantly improved from July to August (even though household incomes went down). What explains the dramatic change? Did the government interventions in early August to rein in prices have some impact?
We must remember that mVAM is a mobile survey, and the questionnaire is also built into that angle to spot the situation respecting household respondents' time.
The July analysis captured acute food insecurity in Sylhet and Rangpur affected by the floods. The food insecurity situation in those areas has since then relatively stabilised. Also, it's difficult to capture root causes and causal impacts.
When we talk about the average, it includes the high-income group interviewed too. Therefore, we explored more into the income groups. For low and medium-income groups, the most affected group by the price hikes and global crisis remained food insecure in August. The high-income group had a good coping mechanism, fixed income, and very little income loss, which might have impacted the average result.
And if you notice, the poor-income households did not improve but rather deteriorated.
The situation seems to be a lot worse in Sylhet than in other places in the country. How far are local factors such as the recent floods having an impact, in comparison to the impacts of global factors such as the Ukraine War?
It is well known that the Ukraine war impacted the macro-economy and the internal food commodity prices, especially those imported from Ukraine and Russia, such as wheat, fertiliser and oil. Due to fuel costs, the internal cost of production also increased. The country, as a whole, suffered.
On top of that, the floods in Sylhet directly damaged croplands and households, with loss of income. It was well depicted in the survey.
Do you think the government should have more strategic interventions in flood-affected areas like Sylhet and Mymensingh, as well as the more generally vulnerable areas such as Rajshahi and Rangpur, to address the struggles people are now facing?
These are two different priorities and both short-term and long-term planning are required. The government is addressing this through social safety net programmes and emergency responses. They are also considering both horizontal and vertical expansions.
Most importantly, development partners and the government are discussing shock-responsive social safety nets in Bangladesh. It also requires rehabilitation of the agricultural sector as it is severely impacted. It requires time.
Around 81% of people surveyed in July appear to have acceptable food consumption status. Does this not contradict the narrative that there is widespread food insecurity in Bangladesh right now?
The food consumption score is a strong indicator of inquiries about household food intake over the last seven days, while it is not the only indicator which can explain the food security situation.
The food security situation often needs to be explained through dimensions such as food availability, food access, food utilisation and food sustainability. Households are reluctant to answer in detail if they have taken quality food in the right quantity. In July, it had some special consideration as fish and local fruits like mango were abundant and at low prices due to seasonality.
What explains the 37% loss in household income source?
In July, 37% of households reported a loss of their income source – or a part of it – over the last six months. Primary causes are loss of employment, reduced daily labour opportunities, disruption in market functionality, price hikes, reduced assistance, illness and health expenditure increases.
Why did the situation become bad in Barisal in August?
Barisal is a highly poverty-prone area, as per the BBS poverty estimation. It is difficult to say why the situation in Barisal deteriorated in August.
Would you say food price inflation is the biggest threat to food security in Bangladesh at the moment? What additional steps can be taken at the moment to rein prices?
Food Price Inflation is one of the major challenges, but not the only big threat. Unemployment and loss of income (both long-term and short-term, such as lean season impact) are the major challenges, coupled with disaster impact.
At the moment stabilising prices is very difficult as it's currently a global phenomenon. The government has been putting efforts to stabilise the market volatility, yet it has been challenging amid the global food crisis and inflation impact.