Among the lessons being learnt from the current food crisis in Southern Africa is the need for a common approach to early warning.
Save the Children Fund (SCF) stumbled by chance on evidence of a potential famine emerging in Malawi in 2001, when collecting household economic data. According to the agency, its prediction was initially ignored because other agencies were focussing on other areas of the country, or using different methodologies.
"The Malawi situation was a very complex situation," Phumzile Mdladla, chairperson of the Zimbabwe-based Regional Vulnerability Assessment Committee told IRIN. "There was institutional rivalry with every organisation saying 'we saw it first' or 'our methodology is superior'."
What has since emerged is far greater collaboration on vulnerability assessments between international agencies, as well as the building of capacity at both the regional and national level.
"I think there has been a lot of effort put in place to coordinate early warning systems ... Vulnerability assessments now operate under a common approach, whereas in the past various NGOs used various methodologies," Mdladla said.
More than 14 million people are threatened with starvation in six southern African countries as a result of drought, poverty, the impact of HIV/AIDS, and inappropriate government policies.
Early-warning systems should be able to identify "shocks" such as crop failure or price rises that could cause famine, as well as the likely effect on people's ability to access sufficient food, a recent report written by SCF food security technical director John Seaman said.
"Using existing techniques, we can now confidently detect any significant food crisis. The challenge is to find an effective institutional framework to ensure that these techniques are routinely applied," Seaman said in the report released by the UK-based Overseas Development Institute.
"It is clear that the current involvement of multiple organisations, each with its own interests, cannot meet the basic challenge of early warning. Agency coordination is a national function: only governments can adequately coordinate external agencies," Seaman argued.
Joyce Luma of the World Food Programme's vulnerability analysis unit in South Africa said she agreed. "Any information that is collected needs to be fed into the decision-making body and governments should be central to all this."
In normal years, the Southern African Development Community (SADC) works with member countries to conduct an annual vulnerability survey at the end of each harvest. As a result of the food crisis, these have been transformed into rolling assessments involving international agencies which are coordinated by SADC's Vulnerability Assessment Committee.
The surveys are multisectoral and increasingly livelihood based, looking at household incomes and food access issues, as well as the availability of basic commodities on local markets.
In the initial assessment missions, governments found they "had lagged way behind the NGOs" in terms of technical capacity. As a result, they did not have a sense of "ownership" of the surveys. That has begun to change as a consequence of building confidence and capacity, Mdladla said
"Our mandate is to ensure that national governments own the whole programme," she noted. "Most of the countries now feel they can go out and lead a vulnerability assessment."