Feed the Future aims to link agriculture and food security projects to deliver improved nutritional outcomes and is committed to reducing child stunting in its zones of influence by 20 percent in five years. Key to this effort is an investment in activities that apply evidence-based approaches and better practices to the complex and contextually-specific challenges existing in communities most vulnerable to food insecurity. A primary finding from SPRING’s Landscape Analysis of the 19 Feed the Future countries1 was that many Feed the Future activities had not undertaken adequate analysis of the factors that may contribute to food insecurity and malnutrition in the defined target area communities and households. As a result, a demand for guidance on better assessment of local contexts to support effective project design emerged from discussions with Feed the Future staff in Washington, DC and multiple USAID Missions. USAID develops country development and cooperation strategies (CDCS) that provide analysis at national, regional, and zone of influence levels to drive investments across a range of sectors. As requests for proposal (RFP) are developed and responded to, the task of undertaking more in-depth context assessment may sit with the Mission or applicant organizations. Due to time and resource constraints, the level of assessment is often based only on a review and modification of the problem analyses within the CDCS, rather than devoted project-specific surveys and analyses.2 This guide was developed in response to this need and emphasizes the importance of a detailed local context assessment to inform effective project design, incorporate strategy analyses and secondary data review, identify information gaps, and collect primary data.
While USAID-specific project design provided the initial idea for this guide, it has intentionally been written in more general terms to increase relevance and utility. The guide is intended to support a broader audience, such as local and international nongovernment organizations (NGOs and INGOs), donors, and multinational organizations that are interested in designing agriculture-nutrition projects. Please direct questions and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The aim of this guide is to support context assessment for project design, whether creating new or amending existing projects. It intends to strengthen the links between agricultural interventions and nutritional outcomes. The guide explains the basic steps of context assessment and presents a variety of primary data collection tools.
Purpose & Uses of this Guide
This guide was developed to provide support to Mission staff and implementing organizations that are designing or re-designing projects.3 As noted, although some parts of the guide are specific to USAID project development, it is also intended to support a broader audience that is interested in agriculture-nutrition programming. The guide aims to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of resource investments through project-specific assessment and design.
This guide emphasizes the importance of a detailed review of existing data, identifying information gaps, and collecting additional information to fill them.
In some cases, there will be sufficient secondary data available to analyze the key factors of interest, but in many cases primary data collection will be required to fill information gaps or to gather more detailed information to determine appropriate intervention selection and/or sequence of action.
Note that this guide covers one aspect of project design–it does not provide comprehensive guidance for designing new projects. Following a context assessment, additional guidance on project design would be required to complete the design process.
Part I of the guide outlines the basic steps of context assessment, including:
- Formulating key questions
- Defining the context(s)
- Identifying existing sources for use in secondary data analysis
- Collecting primary data
Part II of the guide focuses on how to gather new information on the various components that link agriculture and nutrition. SPRING’s conceptual pathways between agriculture and nutrition are briefly presented here; for a more detailed explanation refer to the explanatory briefs found here.4 The main content of this section is a list of summarized context assessment tools that are related to one or more components of the agriculture-nutrition pathways.
The tool summaries follow a template and include a description of the content and the applications of each tool. These summaries are intended to facilitate an informed choice of which tool is most appropriate based on assessment objectives, timing, and available budget.
The guide does not offer new tools for contextual assessment. Rather, it encourages use of existing manuals and handbooks to provide practical guidance on assessing the various factors along the agriculture-nutrition path.
All components along the agriculture-nutrition conceptual pathways are covered by at least one tool, except nutritional outcomes and health status, which are beyond the scope of this guide. The tools included are intended to be adapted so practitioners can select the most relevant parts to meet their assessment objectives. Selecting the appropriate tools, or modules of tools, for the specific purposes of an assessment can be challenging and this guide aims to support this process.
Part II of the guide also provides additional detail on the use of a companion tool for deciding which tools best meet the needs of the assessment team.
What is Context Assessment?
For the purpose of this guide, context assessment is defined as an exercise in information gathering and analysis intended to improve understanding of a geographic target area and/or field of inquiry within a specific timeframe. A context assessment can be formal or informal, but it should answer a specific question or group of questions that are developed as a first step in the exercise. A context assessment acknowledges the idea that geographic target areas 5 and timelines vary widely; a successful intervention in one area may not be effective in another or at a different point in time.
In the case of this guide, which is focused on agriculture-nutrition linkages, a context assessment aims to understand the critical pathways and components between agriculture and nutrition in a given geographic area (or zone of influence) and timeframe.
The results of a context assessment are used to design effective policies and projects to address identified needs, problems, and barriers.
Note that an assessment can vary widely in scope and resources, depending on objectives and resources that can be dedicated to the exercise.
Why is Context Assessment Important?
Achieving sustainable improvements in nutritional outcomes needs carefully designed interventions that take into account specifics of local contexts. The pathways from agricultural interventions to nutritional outcomes are complex, and include a number of interrelated components. These components range from women’s empowerment to processing and storage of commodities, from agricultural income to individual health status. Achieving a specific nutrition objective requires understanding these factors and their relationships within a given context; there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to project design or implementation.
For example, if the project aims to increase consumption of a diverse diet as a part of agriculture production and income improvement interventions, assessment is needed to determine the key barriers to year round access to diverse, nutrient rich foods. Additionally, the assessment would want to look into the barriers to ensuring consumption of these foods among all household members. A number of complex factors are involved, ranging from post-harvest storage options to cultural norms for intrahousehold decision-making. Performing assessments helps to focus project activities on selected factors supported by contextually specific information, rather than unverified assumptions.
What this guide is:
- Guidance for USAID integrated agriculture-nutrition project design
- Explanation of basic steps of context assessment
- Summaries of existing context assessment tools with guidance for selection
Assumptions are often made to fill gaps in information in order to formulate logical and results-based project designs. They range from determinants of malnutrition, vulnerability, targeting, needs, and causal relationships between various components. Context assessment allows staff to acknowledge and check these assumptions. The information collected provides evidence to support or reject the initial assumptions.
The context assessment provides information to help identify the most vulnerable populations and where they live. This data helps designers to develop targeting strategies and criteria during project design. The assessment also provides critical information on seasonal fluctuations in malnutrition rates, food prices, and food insecurity.
The assessment identifies other projects or broader initiatives working to address the same problems, which helps to plan to coordinate with and/or leverage them.
Analyzing this information provides an understanding of the potential benefits and threats that could result from assistance. This includes consideration of the specific types of assistance and the way activities are conducted.
What this guide is not:
- A standalone context assessment tool
- Guidance for strategy design
- A “how-to” guide to secondary data analysis
- Description of nutrition causal analysis
- Complete guidance for project design
Determining project activities and objectives occurs through analysis of the assessment findings around opportunities and constraints. This allows for targeting resources to those who need it most, when they need them most. Such tailored project design facilitates efficient use of limited resources, increasing the likelihood of achieving nutritional objectives.
When Should We Use Context Assessment?
Context assessments are recommended for RFP development as well as for project design and planning to determine the most effective way to invest resources and select evidence based strategies. Strategy and project documents, including USAID country development cooperation strategies (CDCS), would be strengthened by a section on context assessment, the content of which is based on relevant data.
While country-level strategy documents define broad objectives and intended results, specific projects should identify how to achieve the results and which tools to use. Context assessment for project design should aim to inform the best way(s) to achieve the defined strategic objectives.
Furthermore, regularly assessing contexts is critical as contexts can shift, and project design should be based upon the most recent and relevant information.
Although strategy documents will have relevant data, project design cannot be solely based on these broad documents and data. More specific and up-to-date information–often both secondary and primary data–would assist Missions to design precise, objective RFAs/RFPs and for implementing partners to design projects and write proposals.
Context assessment may also be conducted part-way through a project cycle and used to inform strategic planning, support exit strategies, or modify activities. Modifying project activities can be particularly important as conditions frequently change during the life of a project. Design adjustments facilitate realignment with project objectives, and therefore the broader country strategy.
Context Assessment: Why?
- To identify problems
- To understand determinants of these problems, including seasonality and environmental factors
- To identify most-vulnerable populations or those most-at -risk
- To identify opportunities to address problems
- To build on existing programs and facilitate cooperation
- To assess potential harm
Who Should Do Context Assessment?
Context assessments can vary widely in their scope, technical complexity, timing, and required resources. The most technically complex multi-sectoral assessments require significant previous experience and expertise. These may require one or more technically skilled individuals to design data collection tools, train teams of enumerators and lead data analysis.
Context Assessment: When?
- Project design
- Project appraisal documents
- Request for applications
- Project modification
- Activity modification
- Exit strategy planning
- Strategy design or revision
In some cases, if the key questions are very focused on one sector, the context assessment may require a technical specialist within that field to help design tools and analyze and interpret data.
It may be possible for less experienced professionals to lead smaller scale contextual assessments, which may focus on secondary data analysis and limited primary data collection. Many of the tools summarized in Section II of this guide specify the kinds of technical expertise required to lead the data collection and analysis. When planning a context assessment, it is critical to ensure availability of staff (or contractors) who have the right level of technical expertise.
Part 1: General Steps for Context Assessment
First it is necessary to formulate the questions the assessment intends to answer. These questions will shape the rest of the assessment. It is also necessary to define the context(s) the assessment will cover. Once these are defined, the assessment should identify relevant secondary data and fill specific information gaps using primary data collection techniques.
The first critical step of a context assessment is formulating the question(s) the assessment plans to answer. Without these questions, the search for relevant data can be complex and overwhelming. The key questions provide the boundaries for data collection, making the task more focused and manageable. The questions guide the search for relevant secondary data and the selection of appropriate tools for primary data collection. If the question identified seems broad, it may be helpful to break it into multiple specific questions.
It can be helpful to think of the basics: who, what, where, when, why, and how. For example:
- Which population is of most interest?
- What key nutrition and agriculture practices are currently being used?
- How does seasonality affect undernutrition?
- How do livelihood roles and responsibilities differ by gender?
- What percentage of household income is used to purchase food?
Note that the SPRING conceptual pathways between agriculture and nutrition (see Figure) may serve as a helpful guide to conceptualizing the various questions that may be included in your assessment.
Define the Context(s)
With key questions formulated and agreed upon, there are two steps that should be carried out prior to collecting data:
- Define geographic or administrative level of focus for the context assessment.
Consider the objectives of the assessment–do you need data for the entire country? The zone of influence (ZOI)? A particular part of the ZOI? Certain livelihood zones?
- Determine level of data required to answer key questions.
Do your questions require details about communities, households, or individuals? For example, perhaps data related to socioeconomic status could be gathered at household level, but exploring women’s empowerment or children’s nutritional status will require individual-level data. The context assessment will likely require data at multiple levels; ensure clarity on which questions should be answered at which levels.
Identify Existing Data
Once the objectives, geographical boundaries, and level of assessment are clearly defined, begin data collection. Various methods of data collection can be employed in the context assessment; it is not necessary to jump into primary data collection as relevant information may already be available.
The first step is reviewing the assessment components within country strategy documents. These documents should contain a review of the contexts, challenges, and opportunities applicable to project design. Relevant quantitative data to inform selection of appropriate indicators for the project may also be available from these documents.
However, there may be more specific or detailed information required for the project design. Identifying that information requires a more thorough literature review including various reports and surveys from national, regional, or local levels. Note that the box of secondary data sources is not comprehensive, as a variety of other sources may be available depending on the context.
It is important to assess the relevance of the data for the purposes of the context assessment. Can it be disaggregated to the locality, the level, and population segments of interest? When was it collected and has the context changed since then? How was the data collected, for what purpose, and by whom? All secondary data must be reviewed with a critical eye to ensure it is still relevant and can contribute to the assessment.
Key Secondary Data Sources
- Demographic and health surveys
- Living standards measurement studies
- NGO or multilateral assessment reports
- Ongoing project surveys and reports
- Government documents
- Public health reports
- University publications
- Household economy approach baselines
- FEWS NET reports
- Feed the Future datasets
When analyzing the data, keep the assessment key questions in mind. How does each piece of data answer a component of the question? When all the data have been verified as eligible for inclusion in the assessment, and analyzed and conceptually slotted into place, it is crucial to identify remaining gaps. Are parts of the key questions yet unanswered? These remaining components will need to be addressed through primary data collection.
Original Data Collection & Analysis
Before starting a context assessment that involves primary data collection, a budget and logistics plan must be developed along with a list of questions and methods. Note that there can be huge variation in budget requirements for different assessments, so detailed budget planning is required. For example, based on the kinds of questions you ask, a diet recall takes a lot of time, which has implications for both budget and logistics. Resource constraints will limit the scope of data collection, so prioritize the essential areas or activities for obtaining the information most important to the assessment objective(s). Note that many of the tools in the library include instructions and guidance on these operational details.
There must be a detailed timeline, budget, and logistics plan before starting an assessment.
Primary data collection should fill the identified information gaps. Focus data collection on these areas exclusively to maximize resources.
Depending on the scope of the data required, it may be possible for skilled staff to conduct the data collection. In many cases, however, enumerators will need to be hired and trained for primary data collection, with more experienced staff designing the tools and managing the data collection and analysis process to ensure that data is of the highest quality.
Most assessment tools suggest using both qualitative and quantitative data collection methods, as the combination provides the depth and breadth of information needed to fully understand the context. In many cases, qualitative data collection may precede a survey; the information collected qualitatively then feeds into the design of a quantitative survey tool. However, it may be an iterative process, with qualitative information informing survey design and explaining findings from the survey data. For example, a survey might demonstrate that a small percentage of households are using improved seeds. But focus groups or interviews could explain why–perhaps they prefer the taste of traditional varieties or the improved seeds are too expensive.
There are a variety of tools with different requirements for data collection. Many tool guides contain detailed information on the operations and logistics of assessment and analysis. The timeline, cost, and required expertise can vary substantially between tools, so it is important to consider these factors against your assessment needs when selecting a specific tool.
An interactive online platform has been developed to support the process of tool selection, and is available on the SPRING website. Refer to Part II below, or visit the SPRING website for more details.
Part II: Tool Library
This section presents the pathways between agriculture and nutrition, according to the SPRING conceptual framework. This is followed by an explanation of the online tool locator, developed to support the selection of tools. The guide concludes with summarized versions of tools that can be used for primary data collection. These tools cover all components along the pathways; the information included in the summaries is intended to support selection of the most appropriate tool(s) for a specific context assessment.
Pathways Diagram and Description
The conceptual pathways presented here provide a summary of the current state of knowledge to leverage agriculture to improve nutrition. Agricultural livelihoods affect nutrition of individual household members through multiple pathways and interactions.
The figure below illustrates how various agriculture outcomes might improve access to food and health care; how they impact and are affected by the enabling environment; and how they ultimately affect the nutrition of women and children.
In general, the pathways can be divided into three main routes at the household level: 1) food production, which can affect the food available for household consumption as well as the prices of diverse foods; 2) agricultural income for expenditure on food and non-food items; and 3) women’s empowerment, which affects income, caring capacity and practices, and female energy expenditure.
Acting on all of these routes is the enabling environment for nutrition, including several key components: the natural resources environment; the food market environment; the health, water and sanitation environment; nutrition/health knowledge and norms; and other factors such as policy and governance.
The key components of the enabling environment are broad and complex subjects; none of the tools are solely focused on these topics. However, much of the information collected could be applied to components such as nutrition knowledge or the food market environment.
Note that ‘natural resources’ is a particularly complex subject, and natural resource assessments are beyond the scope of this guide. In many cases, Mission strategies may have covered this topic in some detail. If it is determined to be an information gap, the assessment team may need to hire an expert to cover this subject.
Figure. Conceptual Pathways Between Agriculture and Nutrition
Context Assessment Online Tool*
The online tool locator aims to support the process of choosing the most appropriate tool for a given context and design purpose.
Step 1: Click on the component(s) of interest.
Each selectable component** along the pathways is outlined and will change appearance when hovered over with your mouse; once clicked, a dialog box will direct you to the guidance questions linked to that component.
Step 2: Review the list of guidance questions associated with the selected component.
Because any assessment requires multiple aspects of inquiry, specific questions have been developed to guide the user. View the full list of guidance questions by pathway components.
The guidance questions are intended to:
- Support the conceptualization and planning of a context assessment exercise and analysis.
- Check the range of assumptions that should be considered in agriculture-nutrition project design.
The list of guidance questions can inform the formulation of the questions that shape the context assessment. Reviewing the list of guidance questions can serve as a reminder of the breadth of factors that might be relevant. All elements concerning one or more specific components along the pathways should be considered in their entirety, and the guidance questions facilitate that task.
The guidance questions can be useful when conducting the secondary data review and defining the focus of primary data collection. For example, with access to recent surveys on household dietary diversity and caloric intake, an assessment team might believe they have sufficient information on diets. Guidance questions may remind the team that intra-household allocation of food is a critical factor for nutritional outcomes because information on individual food consumption may be the missing link when identifying determinants of undernutrition. Therefore, the list of guidance questions helps ensure that all aspects have been considered and checks the underlying assumptions of the assessment.
Step 3: Click on the question most relevant to your assessment objectives.
The guidance questions can support decision-making about which aspects of inquiry to prioritize. With limited resources, an assessment may concentrate on a few specific aspects and the guiding questions might help an assessment team determine the priorities. After considering the all the guidance questions, users should select those questions most relevant to their assessment.
Example Guidance Questions
- How do households access inputs and finances required for food production?
- What are the most nutrient-dense crops that can be grown locally?
- What are barriers to women obtaining control of resources and/or income?
- How has food expenditure been affected by an emergency?
- What are barriers to access and uptake of health services?
- How can we design an agriculture program to improve diets?
- What are feasible intervention options to make nutritious food more affordable?
Please note that while clicking on a question will take you to a new dialog box with associated tools, you can return to the list of guidance questions using a link at the top of the dialog box.
Step 4: Review the list of all tools associated with the selected guidance question.
Each guidance question is linked to summaries of related tools. Once a guidance question is selected, users will be directed to the tools that answer that question. The tool summaries provide basic information on the content and operations of each tool. With a quick scan of the one-page summaries, users should understand the purpose of the tool, the key questions it answers, and basic operational details such as the cost, timing, and skills required to use this tool.
Step 5: Click on the names of the tools that seem appropriate based on your objectives and resource constraints.
Each tool name will open a new tab in your web browser. Comparing the summaries of the linked tools enables users to select the most appropriate tool(s) for their assessment, considering the purpose and any operational constraints.
The assessment team can decide which tool or which modules of several tools are most appropriate for their use.
Each tool summary contains a link to the online version of the complete tool. The final step is following the link to download the complete manual or guidance. These complete documents will provide the step-by-step instructions needed to conduct the assessment.
Note: If users wish to skip the suggested steps, a key word search function is also available below the diagram, although it provides less guidance. For example, you can type words like "emergency," "quantitative," or "income" into the search box, and you will be taken to a list of tools mentioning that term.
Steps for using the interactive Agriculture and Nutrition Context Assessment Tool Locator:
- Click on the component of interest from the "Conceptual Pathways between Agriculture and Nutrition" diagram.
- Review the list of guidance questions associated with the selected component.
- Click on the question most relevant to your assessment objectives.
- Review the list of all tools associated with the selected guidance question—you can click back to the list of guidance questions.
- Click on the names of the tools that seem appropriate based on your objectives and resource constraints. Each link will open up a page in a new browser tab. Each page features a summary of the tool, links to PDF downloads of the summary and the full set of tool summaries, and a link out to the tool itself.
The tools listed below are aligned with one or more components along the agriculture-nutrition conceptual pathways. Some of the tools are narrow in scope, focusing on an individual aspect of one component. Others are much broader, covering all components of an entire pathway. In many cases, users can select the modules of the tool that are most useful. Note that even if a tool seems too detailed and time-consuming, there may be modules of that tool that could be extracted to fill an information gap.
Selection criteria: The process of finding tools started as an open search for all potentially relevant handbooks, manuals, and guidelines. The resulting list of tools was reviewed for the following criteria:
Criteria for Inclusion:
- Tool linked to assessment or program design.
- Tool is related to at least one component along the agriculture-nutrition conceptual pathways (Figure).
- Tool is not oriented to policy development exclusively.
- Tool is not oriented to strategy development exclusively.
- Tool does not use anthropometry only.
- Indicators are not included in other large scale/national surveys (e.g. DHS).
- Tool is relevant to food insecure country context.
- Tool is related to project design for agriculture-nutrition linkages.
List of Summarized Tools
- Assessment tools
- Cost of the Diet – Save the Children UK
- Crop and Food Security Assessment Missions – FAO & WFP
- Comprehensive Food Security & Vulnerability Analysis - WFP
- Emergency Food Security Assessment - WFP
- Food Security & Livelihoods Assessment: A Practical Guide for Field Workers - ACF
- Household Economy Approach: Practitioners’ Guide – Save the Children & FEG
- Global Food Security Assessment Guidelines - IFRC
- IYCF: A Tool for Assessing National Practices, Policies & Programs - WHO
- Knowledge, Practices & Coverage Survey (KPC) – CORE Group
- Measuring Food Security Using Household Expenditure Surveys - IFPRI
- Rapid Rural Appraisal and Participatory Rural Appraisal - CRS
- Semi-Quantitative Evaluation of Access and Coverage (SQUEAC) / Simplified Lot Quality Assurance Sampling Evaluation of Access and erage (SLEAC) – FANTA/ Muti-Agency
- Optifood – WHO, LSHTM, Blue Infinity
- ProPAN 2.0 – PAHO & UNICEF
- How to Conduct a Food Commodity Value Chain Analysis? -WFP
- Guidelines for Value Chain Analysis - FAO
- Rapid Needs Assessments: Water, Sanitation and Hygiene - WHO
- Hygiene Evaluation Procedures – LSHTM, Australian Center for International & Tropical Health & Nutrition
- Diagnostics for Industrial Value Chain Development – United Nations Industrial Development Organization
- Behavior Change Perspectives on Gender and Value Chain Development – ACDI-VOCA &FHI 360
- Financial Diaries
- Emergency Market Mapping and Analysis Toolkit – Practical Action
- Barrier Analysis – Food for the Hungry & CORE Group
- The KAP Survey Model (Knowledge, Attitudes & Practices) – Medicins du Monde
- Household Livelihood Security Assessment - CARE
- Improving Nutrition with Agricultural Biodiversity - Bioversity International
- Participatory Vulnerability Analysis - ActionAid
- Livelihoods Assessment Toolkit – FAO & ILO
- 48-hour assessment Tool: Food Security & Livelihoods in First Phase Emergency – Oxfam/ECB
- Livestock in Emergencies Guidelines and Standards – Practical Action
- Improving Nutrition Programmes: An Assessment Tool for Action – FAO
- Seed System Security Assessment – CIAT & CRS
- Specific Indicator Guides
- The Coping Strategies Index – Tufts University & TANGO
- Household Hunger Scale – FANTA, FAO & Tufts University
- Household Dietary Diversity Score - FANTA
- Food Consumption Score - WFP
- Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index (WEAI) – IFPRI & CGIAR
- Household Food Insecurity Access Scale – FANTA
- Programming Tools & Guides
- Nutritional Impact Assessment Tool – USAID IYCN Project
- Nutritious Agriculture by Design: A Program Planning Tool – GAIN & IDS
- BEHAVE – AED & CORE Group
- Farming as a Business – Mercy Corps
- Economic Strengthening Toolkit – Land O’ Lakes
- Maximizing the Nutritional Impact of Food Security & Livelihoods Interventions - ACF
- Integrating Gender Throughout a Project’s Lifecycle – Land O’ Lakes
- Promoting Gender Equitable Opportunities in Agricultural Value Chains – USAID Office of Women in Development
- Integrating Very Poor Producers into Value Chains – FHI 360 & World Vision
- Making the Strongest Links: A Practical Guide to Mainstreaming Gender Analysis in Value Chain Development - ILO
- Pathways out of Poverty – ACDI-VOCA
- Value Chain Strategy Design – ACDI-VOCA
- Nutrition Program Design Assistant – CORE Group, Nutrition Working Group