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Updated: 3 days ago

By Ben Holt

Food fuels everything that humans do. The calories we consume energise our bodies, and eating is deeply connected to culture and community. The work of growing crops, raising animals, and processing food has shaped our economy and altered the planet since we first became farmers 12,000 years ago[1]. 

Our planet now produces enough calories to feed more than 10 billion people a year. Yet one in 10 people go to bed hungry, and three billion people can’t afford a healthy, nutritious diet[2]. This is despite the fact that access to food is a fundamental human right under the UN’s International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights[3]. 

Finding solutions to this deeply complex global issue demands an urgent, coordinated, and future-focused response. 

The Secretary General of the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), Jagan Chapagain, argues: “Hunger is one of the most undignified sufferings of humanity. To alleviate human suffering, we must rise to this challenge through collective mobilization and action — both in the immediate and long-term. We simply cannot afford to do too little, too late.”


Food insecurity is on the rise after decades of development gains. The global food system has been disrupted by the complex interplay between the climate crisis, economic instability, a global pandemic, supply chain fragility, war and geopolitical realignment. In 2022, 258 million people faced high levels of acute food insecurity, up from 193 million people in 2021, according to the Global Report on Food Crises[4]. 

In simple terms, these are men, women and children whose lives or livelihoods are in immediate danger because they are unable to consume adequate food. This is the worst global food crisis in contemporary history. 

For decades, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in the humanitarian and development sectors have played a vital role during a food crises. They can mobilise people, money and supplies, and run the complex logistics required to reach the people in greatest need. 

From small local charities to huge global institutions, these organisations also strengthen community resilience through improvements in how food is produced and distributed, and by supporting people as they find reliable livelihoods, which allows them to meet their family needs.  

These services are often called Food Security and Livelihoods programmes, or FSL[5]. 

The IFRC is the world’s largest humanitarian organisation, with a network of more than 16 million staff and volunteers spanning 191 countries. They have been deeply involved in FSL operations for decades, reaching many millions of people and playing a key role in the world’s response capacity. 

The IFRC Definitions of food security and livelihoods:

Food security is when all people have physical and economic access at all times to buy, produce, obtain or consume sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for a healthy and active life.

Livelihoods are the capabilities, assets and activities required for people to earn money and secure a means of living.

Lucy Sembei, The FSL Programmes Manager at the Kenyan Red Cross explains: “We cannot do meaningful humanitarian work without giving attention to food security and livelihoods. It is the communities who are most vulnerable to food shortages and disruption to their livelihoods who suffer most when any crisis hits.  We have to focus on how to support these communities to not just recover, but to thrive and withstand any future shocks.”

But the entire system is now under immense pressure. The traditional approaches cannot meet the emerging challenges or adapt quickly enough to exploit new technologies or advances in biotech and other domains. As populations and economies shift, and the climate breakdown accelerates, new types of crises will demand new types of action. 


Overcoming institutional inertia and accelerating innovation are vital. In a recent report, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) urged decision makers to think beyond short term needs, warning that a lack of vision, piecemeal approaches and “quick fixes” will come at a high cost for everyone. A new mindset that prioritizes long-term objectives, sustainability, and resilience is urgently needed.

The IFRC’s Yuve Guluma, Senior Officer for Food Security, Resilient Livelihoods and Social Protection, agrees: “For some time, humanitarian and development stakeholders have been aware that ‘business as usual’ is not a viable solution to these challenges.  The systems we have created need to change; they are failing now and are not fit for the future. We hear this from the communities we support, the staff and volunteers caught in the cycle of crisis-and-response, and the donors we rely on to fund our work.” 

These challenges were at the root of an international project designed to reimagine food security and livelihoods (FSL) operations in the humanitarian sector. 

The project began when the National Red Cross Societies in Kenya (KRC), Malawi (MRC) and Zambia (ZRC) agreed to collaborate with Yuve’s team in Geneva to develop innovative new concepts for their FSL programmes. These National Societies (NS) recognised that the challenges they faced, and the opportunities to respond, were changing rapidly and the future could look dramatically different to today. 

Wina Wina, a Disaster Management specialist at the Zambian Red Cross, says: “We are asking how best we can get people to look at current practices and future challenges, as well as new opportunities. We need to know what is working, what is not, and what we should invest in now to make the future more food secure. How can we impact this system by doing things differently?”

The humanitarian sector has a checkered history when it comes to innovation. There has been a lot of energy, money and effort but few real breakthrough ideas that have scaled and changed the way they work. There are amazing pockets of work and many brilliant, smart, creative people, but sometimes the bureaucracy and risk appetite stymie even the best ideas. 


Because the sector has yet to fully embrace the power of Strategic Foresight to root its ideas in compelling, challenging visions of possible futures, the IFRC was determined to try something new. 

Yuve contacted the IFRC Solferino Academy, a creative ‘think and do tank’ that works across the global network of 191 National Societies (nearly every country has its own Red Cross or Red Crescent) to help them transform to face today’s complex reality and the uncertainties of the future. The Solferino Academy operates like an internal agency that supports various initiatives throughout the Red Cross and Red Crescent network, and has deep expertise in leadership, innovation and strategic foresight.


Right from the start we knew we needed to take a different approach because the issues at the heart of food security and livelihoods are so complex, interconnected and difficult to influence. It was such a great challenge, and a real pleasure to be working with experts from across the world.


The IFRC’s core foresight team – me in London, innovation specialist Sara Gullet, located in Nairobi, Kenya, and foresight expert Patricia Mugenzi, located in Abidjan, Ivory Coast – sketched out a process which combined systems mapping with foresight and design thinking. The ambition was to generate a portfolio of promising innovation concepts for each of the three countries. 

We decided to make the project asynchronous, meaning that key pieces of work could be done separately in the different countries before coming back together to share and brainstorm new ideas. This helped give each National Society (NS) ownership and autonomy, as well as avoiding the pain of coordinating diaries across multiple countries and time zones!

The first job was to map the system that drives food security and livelihoods issues. The foresight team began desk research while the NS specialists applied their experience and expertise to identify the key drivers and issues. 

Over time, a systems map was modelled, challenged, critiqued and refined. This map was a critical shared artifact; the process of creating it allowed everyone to pool their skills and expertise, and the map became a common reference point throughout the rest of the project. 

To sense check the systems map, a group of global academics, start-up and industry experts came together for a workshop. They interrogated the map and added their own builds. The questions were challenging but the feedback was positive, with requests to use the map with students and colleagues. 

The general consensus was that no one had seen the food security system visualised in this way and it was potentially a useful tool for all sorts of work. 

Wina Wina, of the Zambian Red Cross, says: “I’ve worked on a lot of projects trying to enhance food security, but this was the first one that looked at the interconnectedness between the different areas. It was a new way of looking holistically at our society, looking at connections and how things branch out from one area into all the others.

“It was also important to look long-term because we need to think about a future when we – the Red Cross – are not there. We have to think about a future when the solutions we put in place, and the communities we support today, can stand on their own.”

Next, the different countries overlaid their existing operations, skills and resources on to the map. This allowed us to see where they were already working, as well as areas where there might be potential for new types of intervention. Again, visualising how the Red Cross Red Crescent was already working in each different context was incredibly useful. 

Each NS picked three priority areas where they thought they could enhance current operations or design new interventions, and this triggered the strategic foresight phase. With the support of the IFRC Solferino Academy foresight team, the national Red Cross teams explored weak signals, emerging trends and possible futures across these priority areas. Over time, this research was turned into future scenarios. 

These scenarios were used in various foresight activities to re-examine strategic priorities and spot potential new opportunities. 


Now that everyone had a deeper understanding of the system they were trying to influence and had explored potential futures that could shape that system in coming years, it was time to innovate. 

The innovation process involved connecting with communities and exploring their ideas and aspirations for the future. External stakeholders – from other NGOs, start-ups, business and governments – came together to design potential ways to influence the system and shape the future of FSL programmes. 

Finally, the Red Cross Red Crescent staff ran creative workshops to turn all of these ideas and information into initial innovation concepts. These sessions culminated in desktop walkthroughs, with different teams telling a story about their newly imagined services by bringing it to life with drawing, props and a set of ‘icon cards’ designed by the IFRC Solferino Academy to allow complex concepts to be articulated quickly and clearly[6]. 

In taking an experimental approach, we were disrupted along the way with emergencies which demanded our colleagues’ attention – such as a cholera outbreak in Malawi – and the difficulties of building connection and a good collaborative culture across multiple countries and perspectives while working online. 

But the approach worked. It pushed people to think about the system differently and to root their ideas in the possibilities of the future. I think that was a really novel approach and one in which the IFRC foresight team would  like to continue to refine and improve.

The work is not over. Now that these initial concepts have been created, a new wave of work has begun to dig deeper into the details and to refine the ideas to the point that they can begin to test the assumptions that underpins them, experiment with the mechanisms that would be needed to deliver the, and build the evidence that further investment might lead to scalable, systems-level solutions that might just change the way we deal with food security and livelihood issues. 

Kenya Red Cross’ Lucy says: “Thinking about the future, thinking about big, hairy, ambitious goals was quite something. It drove fear out of me. It challenged me to think beyond what I see as possible today. 

“We need to come up with a different way of tackling our challenges, because if we do not then we may never make progress,” she adds, “and we may keep going in circles. Unfortunately, as you do those circles, there are community members who are permanently and negatively impacted by the disasters. So, we need to find solutions that are going to move us forward in new ways, because the challenges we now face are not the same old challenges.”

The future is uncertain. But we know there will be humanitarian emergencies, sudden shocks which demand a rapid response, and new types of crises. 

Arguably, we are shifting from a time when humanitarian crises were episodic – big upheavals which demanded attention, or cycles of seasonal need – to a permanent state of interconnected, overlapping crises which is overwhelming our ability to respond. 

But by looking at the future, by exploring the possibilities and imagining the potential of new ways of working, we can act now to overhaul the system and intervene in different ways. We can work towards a preferred future, where food is not a luxury, where calories aren’t wasted, and where no one goes to bed hungry.



Ben Holt is the Global Lead for Strategic Foresight at the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC). His work focuses on making futures useful during humanitarian crises and retooling the systems to better anticipate and prepare for emerging challenges. 

His approach combines research and analysis with creativity and practical action, bringing possible futures to life to uncover new opportunities. The IFRC has used foresight to support its work in some of the world’s most complex humanitarian challenges, including the Ukraine conflict and food security programmes in sub-Saharan Africa. 

Ben is also a visiting scholar at the Cambridge University Centre for the Study of Existential Risk (CSER). This work examines long-term risks of social collapse, working with experts in AI, nuclear weapons, volcanos, and other key areas. 

With a background in innovation and organisational change, Ben pushes for practical solutions and real-world impact, linking possible futures back to concrete action. His approach has been recognised in the Association of Professional Futurists’ awards for the most significant futures work globally. 

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