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Examining institutions for food security in Ethiopia: What does the leverage points perspective reveal?

Food security has been a growing issue throughout the 21st century, and despite strong efforts to tackle this, universal food security remains a challenge. This is largely due to the fact that interventions for food security tend to take place at different levels of depth in the system, thus hitting different ‘leverage points’ as described by Meadows (1999). Some interventions tend to target gaps in food supply, whereas others highlight systemic issues in the food system. Therefore, Jiren et al. (2021) used the leverage points perspective to determine how types of shallow or deep interventions in food systems in Ethiopia could interact. Additionally, they aimed to understand where it would be best to intervene to improve food security in the most effective way.

Smallholder-dominated rural landscape in southwestern Ethiopia. Credits: Girma Shumi.

The authors focused on a case study of southwestern Ethiopia in order to examine current changes in formal and informal food security institutions. They aimed to see the effects of these institutions on the food system at different systemic depths, and to discover interplay between formal and informal institutions.

Jiren et al. (2021) found that both types of institution were perceived to be improving food security, yet often formal institutions aimed to enhance food supply, while informal institutions also attempted to build trust among farmers. In the system design, formal institutions tended to focus on information flow and extending agriculture, while informal institutions helped with labor sharing and improved communication. In some ways, the authors found that new formal institutions undermined existing informal institutions for food security. Jiren et al. (2021) found that both visible gaps in the food supply, and deeper systemic issues within food insecurity should be tackled in food security interventions. Additionally, decision-makers should consider complexities and unexpected impacts of interventions between formal and informal institutions.

The authors determined that new formal institutions somewhat contributed to improving food security in SW Ethiopia, and both formal and informal institutions aided household food security. However, differences were seen in that formal institutions targeted the availability of food supply by focussing on closing yield gaps in agricultural production, which could improve food security through technological and chemical means. However, these could also cause unintended problems and this framing could be simplistic and had limited potential to improve food security in the whole system.

However, Jiren et al. (2021) observed that informal institutions were often embedded within local communities, values, and practices. Frequently, these institutions targeted many aspects of food security such as equity, diverse diets, environmental adequacy and stability of food security throughout time. These institutions were more socially embedded and holistic, and therefore could target the underlying systemic issues with food security and were considered critical to solving food security. However, the authors found that these informal institutions also had their imperfections, and therefore both formal and informal institutions are needed to tackle food insecurity due to their different goals and leveraging ability within the food system.

Read the full article by Jiren et al. (2021) here.


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