Hungry for data: Evidence-based policy making tackles food insecurity in rural Indonesia
12 February 2024
Kornelia Icha never starved. Very few people do in Indonesia with its fertile soil and tropical climate. But until a recent intervention by the National Food Agency, her diet consisted mostly of rice, corn, onions and the occasional meat dish.
“I was not aware that vegetables were that important – or how to grow them,” the 25-year-old farmer from Idas, West Kalimantan says. “Now I do.”
Ms. Kornelia, along with 50 of her neighbours in this village among the rolling hills of Northwest Borneo, close to the Malaysian border, received vegetable seeds and the chance to participate in a training on how to grow tomatoes, cucumbers, and peanuts. The idea is that this will make them and their families less prone to diseases.
The village was one of just four out of 160 villages in the district targeted for bespoke government intervention thanks to data-based policymaking. Using a rigorous, data-based methodology from the World Food Programme (WFP), the district’s Food Security Office published a recommendation to all local government offices to concentrate efforts on these settlements, which parallels the government’s aim of providing targeted support for stunting, a condition of which chronic undernutrition is the main contributor.
“Without research and hard data, even the best-intentioned attempts to decrease food security vulnerability are like a shot in the dark,” says Nur Affandi, Head of the Food Security Office in Singgau, the regional capital. “In order to target interventions correctly and create policy that really makes a difference, we must base our work on evidence, not intuition.”
Much of that evidence is presented through the Food Security and Vulnerability Atlas. Developed jointly by WFP and the National Food Agency, the atlas visualizes key food security data for all 514 cities and districts in Indonesia, a vast country of 280 million people. On it, each subdistrict and village is given one of six priority classes of vulnerability, based on indicators such as access to running water, amount of agricultural land per person and access to a medical facility, among others. The composite index takes into account these various indicators and, based on that, automatically identifies which villages and subdistricts are vulnerable to food insecurity.
In 2019, Idas fell into the priority 1 or “highly food insecure” category. Since then, the fortified dirt road connecting it to main roads in the area has been partially repaired to ease villagers’ access to markets and therefore improve their overall economic condition. Seeds have been distributed to families to help them vary their diets, along with pepper plants to diversify their income away from reliance solely on rubber and palm oil. The few families who did not have clean running water are now hooked up to the village’s water system. The result? Idas is no longer considered highly food insecure.
“A major improvement,” a proud Mr. Affandi says with a broad smile. “It’s not thanks to us; it’s thanks to science.”
His approach of data-based policy making is seen as a pilot to emulate, particularly in poorer areas of the country, such as East Nusa Tenggara Province and its capital city of Kupang. A Regent’s Decree prepared in 2022 by the Kupang District Government, the Regional District Development Planning Office and WFP mandates all local authorities, including those in charge of health care, agriculture and social support, to use the Food Security and Vulnerability Atlas to target their food and social support. The province has over 309 subdistricts – 37% of which were found vulnerable to food insecurity in 2021.
In East Nusa Tenggara, more than 20% of the population lives below the poverty line and nearly 40% of children under five are stunted. Stunting prevents a child from reaching their full cognitive and physical potential. Countrywide, just over 20% of children under five were stunted in 2022.
“Using the Atlas for planning enables us to refine our focus and target food insecurity interventions accordingly,” says Marthen Rahakbauw, Head of the Kupang District Regional Development Planning Office.
While the progress is tangible, a lot of work remains.
“WFP is supporting the National Food Agency to work with other cities and districts to also mandate the use of Food Security and Vulnerability Atlas,” said Jennifer Rosenzweig, WFP Indonesia Country Director a.i. “We need more examples like Sanggau and Kupang districts to systematically reach the most vulnerable to food insecurity segments of the population nationwide.”
For Ms. Kornelia, who says she can only afford to eat what she and her relatives can grow themselves, the vegetables make a major difference in her diet. Her and her husband’s base income comes from selling the milky latex they extract from around 200 rubber trees; this earns them around 60,000 Indonesian rupiah (US$ 4) a day, which is supplemented by income from odd jobs and the occasional sale of peanuts.
“We are not poor,” she says. “But we could certainly never eat as many vegetables as we do now.”