The Household Economy Approach (HEA) was developed in the early 1990s by Save the Children UK and the Global Information and Early Warning System of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Its initial aim was to improve FAO’s ability to predict short-term changes in a population’s access to food. At that time, the conversation around food security was transitioning from one of populations ability to produce sufficient amounts of food to one of populations being able to access enough food. The growth and acceptance of this idea followed Amartya Sen’s theory of exchange entitlements, which suggested that famines occur not from an absolute lack of food but from people’s inability to obtain access to that food . The early warning methodologies in place then tended to focus largely on monitoring food supply, using rainfall, production and price data. A form of analysis was needed which could translate an understanding of how people gain access to food and income (and how that access might be affected by a shock) into practical information to guide more effective decision making.
To be useful, the approach had to be capable not just of indicating that people were failing to obtain enough food, but also of quantifying the problem and suggesting possible approaches to help. It had to yield results in a common currency that allowed comparisons between different areas and groups so that resources could be prioritized and goods or services allocated according to need. It had to be capable of providing reliable information on large populations with diverse economies, at reasonable cost. And, crucially, it had to be a predictive approach, to allow for the assessment of future needs. These requirements directed HEA’s development hand in hand with the conviction that an understanding of people’s normal economy – how they usually make a living, their savings, reserves and assets – had to be at the core of any approach seeking to help these households.
The approach has come a long way since then, led in large part by the practitioners in FEG. The fact that an understanding of livelihoods is at the heart of HEA has led to its application beyond famine early warning; this timeline shows the milestones in the development, application and adoption of HEA over the years. It has been used in different settings and for different purposes, and has been refined and adapted in response to both field experience and the needs of particular decision makers. These needs, while varied in context and scope, in nearly all cases boil down to certain fundamental questions, as relevant to designing an intervention for social protection as to contingency planning for emergencies: Where is assistance needed, and of what type? Who needs it? How much do they need, when and for how long? The table below shows how the steps that make up the HEA framework and its characteristics relate directly back to these questions.