Vulnerable Groups and Food Security and Risks

Vulnerable groups, therefore, subject themselves to high-risk livelihood portfolios that may not be effective against shocks. Studies by Rosenzweig and Binswanger (1993) and Dercon and Krishnan (2000) showed that poorer and excluded households are more risk-averse and opt for low returns from safe crops. The key problem for these groups is not only developing portfolios but also food security and access to finance. Food security, as defined by the World Food Summit in Rome (1996), “exists when all people at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life”. Furthermore, they are vulnerable not only to hunger shocks arising from their vulnerability but also to human rights risks such as land grabs. Liversage (2010) sees these land grabs “done by national and local elites, competing land users (e.g., pastoralists and crop farmers), and land grabs within families, typically men from women and, where the incidence of HIV/AIDS is high, from widows and orphans” (p. 3). This accelerating social risk of the vulnerable and in respect of food security is shown to have an acceleration effect on poverty (Fosu 2010), which in turn can have implications for risk aggregation. These vulnerable groups have a low risk-bearing capacity because of downside consequences (such as underinvestment, few productive assets and borrowing capacity) (Kondo 2007) and also because of low access to services such as insurance or insurance substitutes (Stiglitz et al. 2009). Furthermore, it is not clear whether access to a service leads to demand for that service (investment may not materialize into yield) (IFAD 2011).

In this respect, Devereux’s (2002) version of vulnerability as “the exposure and sensitivity to livelihood shocks” becomes more defined and that shocks to food insecurity are key to vulnerability. Food is seen to be the basic existence factor and to this extent the lack of food or chronic malnutrition creates a living vulnerability.

Food security has been identified as a priority development issue (Tickner et al. 1995) for vulnerable groups, particularly as the bulk of the shocks arise by way of agro-ecological fluctuation, inadequate and/or poor quality of landholdings, quality of water supply and access to water supply, lack of agro-equipment, lack of effective labour and managerial skills, inadequate hygiene, low purchasing power by families, and generally socially and often includes socially and financially excluded groups (Tickner et al. 1995; Tickner 1996).

Going back to the works of philosophers such as Socrates, Proudhon and Marx food is seen not only as a value for personal sustainability but as an exchange or tradeable value. At the individual level the ability to ensure trade value hinges on the ability to identify the degree of individual or group vulnerability. Here vulnerability refers to the full range of factors that place individual or groups at risk of becoming food-insecure. Generally they constitute four groups:

  • 1. Those that are chronically vulnerable because of say illness or disability etc.
  • 2. Those that have limited or no funds to generate a sufficient income
  • 3. Those that will be significantly affected by social, environmental and economic shocks, maybe because of location, level of dependency on others, access to financial help or timing of shock
  • 4. Those that are limited by way of little education or access to education

Food access will be affected by the level of each of these factors. It is the last of these factors that critically determines the relationship between food security and vulnerability and to this extent how microfinance institutions seek to redress this inverse relationship. However, before considering the impact of microfinancing we need to understand the notion of the vulnerable householder to enable derivation of conditions in which microfinancing might apply.

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