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Christian Aid

Why is southern Africa hungry?
The roots of southern Africa’s food crisis

A Christian Aid policy briefing

Kato Lambrechts and Gweneth Barry


March 2003

Posted with permission of Christian Aid
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Executive summary
An estimated 16 million people have been affected by food shortages across southern Africa. In 2001 and 2002 many faced months of scarcity and a large-scale disaster was only averted by the relief efforts of governments, international agencies and local nongovernmental organisations. The situation remains critical in Zimbabwe and southern Mozambique, where harvests have failed again and around six and a half million people are still in need. There are also huge needs in Angola after 27 years of civil war.

Drought, floods, and even hailstorms hit southern Africa in 2001 and 2002, destroying crops and triggering massive food shortages across the region. Only ten years before, southern African countries had experienced one of the worst droughts in living memory, destroying far more crops. But in contrast to today’s crisis, with its millions of droughtstricken families, no one was reported to have died of hunger in the early 1990s and few people saw their livelihoods disappear.1 Why, after a decade of UN-sponsored conferences, committing to promote human development, and more than a decade of structural adjustment programmes to boost national economies, are communities in southern Africa becoming ever-more vulnerable?

Most UN agencies and some bilateral donor agencies agree that the crisis in southern Africa has been long in the making, with wide and lasting repercussions. They are calling this a crisis ‘unlike any other’, ‘complex’, ‘structural’, and a ‘new variant’ emergency due to the high prevalence of HIV/AIDS. Christian Aid believes that the hunger crisis is due to an explosive combination – chronic poverty, poor governance, market failure, soaring rates of HIV/AIDS and economic failure. Donors and governments also share responsibility as the crisis is heightened by lack of support for agriculture and rural livelihoods, and ill-advised and often ideologically driven donor policies. With this lethal combination of factors, what could have been a manageable food shortage has been turned into a crisis.

Chronic poverty

Between 65 and 73 per cent of the southern African population lives below the poverty line – a figure which is rising.2 Many subsistence farmers experience endemic food shortages, especially during the few months before the next harvest is due. Even in years of normal rainfall, the time between January and April is known as the ‘hungry season’; families cope by doing piecework to buy food and cut back on their meals. Families in Lesotho and Mozambique have been additionally hard hit by retrenchments in the mining industry and stricter immigration controls in South Africa, which have taken away their income from remittances.

Poor governance

Political leaders and governments have failed to build southern Africans’ resistance to shocks. Resources earmarked to build infrastructure and support markets in remote areas have dwindled; in Malawi and Zimbabwe, the national strategic grain reserves have been mismanaged, and policies to boost the productive capacity of smallholders, especially those living with HIV/AIDS continue to receive low priority. Strong, accountable, wellresourced, inclusive and transparent state institutions and governance systems are needed to regulate staple food markets and provide essential services such as health, education and agricultural marketing, and to store and distribute strategic grain reserves.

Market failures

Reforms in Mozambique, Zambia, Malawi and Zimbabwe have left in their wake a collapse in staple food markets and the inability to balance supply and demand in remote rural areas as state marketing arms and rural depots have closed. In these countries private traders have not materialised to fill the vacuum left by state marketing agents, leaving farmers with no market for their produce. While the withdrawal of guaranteed producer prices in these countries, with the exception of Zimbabwe, has led to price increases for some farmers, others, especially farmers in remote areas, are receiving lower prices than before. Experience shows that state intervention in staple food markets may encourage corruption and inefficiency. However, as an IMF evaluation of its Zambia programme showed, the withdrawal of public subsidies and marketing support can leave remote producers without buyers, thus increasing their vulnerability and poverty.


Over the past decade, the HIV/AIDS pandemic has dramatically increased the vulnerability of small-scale farmers to production shocks. Many farming families have lost their most economically active members, including those who know best how to farm. To pay for funerals and medicine, families are forced to sell their assets; the task of caring for the sick means that women spend less time on the land. HIV/AIDS, coupled with poor governance, is the underbelly of the food crisis today. Little support for agriculture In many countries the withdrawal of subsidised credit and inputs such as seeds, tools and fertilisers has combined with declining government extension services and public investment in rural marketing to spur a decline in rural livelihoods. Despite this, the much-hyped, donor-sponsored Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers prepared by the governments of Zambia, Malawi, Mozambique and Lesotho fall far short of addressing rural development.

Lack of foreign exchange

Declining foreign exchange reserves, especially in Zimbabwe, have limited the ability of governments and private companies to import maize. At the same time, these governments, with the exception of Zimbabwe, continue to pay back old debts in hard currency to international finance institutions. At the same time countries such as the UK and the US, which have a huge influence on these institutions, are being asked to respond to the World Food Programme appeal for emergency funds. The WFP appealed for US$507 million for southern Africa for July 2002 to March 2003. Meanwhile, Mozambique, Malawi and Zambia alone will have paid back US$506 million in total debt service to multilateral and bilateral donors in 2002 and 2003, even after so-called HIPC debt relief.

The legacy of conflict in Angola

Angola, a country rich in natural resources, has been devastated by 27 years of conflict. Fighting has disrupted both the production and distribution and marketing of food. The conflict has led to a political culture of unaccountability, with oil revenues from multinational company oil investments kept separate from the national budget. The percentage of the budget spent on social services is also well below the southern African average and pitifully small, given the massive scale of need in the country. In 2001, spending on education was only 5.2 per cent3 of the budget in a country in which the primary school enrolment rate is only 29 per cent.4

Zimbabwe’s complex crisis

Zimbabwe is experiencing a complex humanitarian, political and economic crisis. Government land reform and redistribution have contributed to a significant fall in agricultural production over the past growing season. Land reform and distribution was and remains necessary in Zimbabwe. What is contested is how it is done, who benefits and the implications for agricultural productivity. Since 2000, the economy has shrunk by 32 per cent; politically the country is polarised. Parliamentary elections in 2000 and presidential elections in 2002 were marked by widespread intimidation, harassment and violence, often state-sponsored and directed at the opposition. The electoral process itself has not been declared free and fair by all international election observers. The government is increasingly curtailing the independence of the police, military, media and judiciary; Amnesty International, as well as Zimbabwean human rights organisations, has documented human rights violations by the Zimbabwean government. New security laws curtailing the freedom of speech and assembly are contributing to a growing lack of government accountability and transparency.

Donor policies

Malawi, Zambia, Mozambique and Lesotho are all highly dependent on donor funding for a major part of their budget revenue. International financial institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank wield great influence over the economic policies pursued by low-income governments, partly through the conditions they attach to loans, partly through the amount they contribute to the national budget, and partly through their formal and informal involvement in policy formulation. Bilateral and multilateral donors often have similar influence for the same reasons. The UK Department for International Development, for example, rates its policy influence in most southern African countries based on the percentage of funds it contributes to the national budget.5 International financial institutions, as well as some bilateral donors, have based their policy recommendations on the belief that overarching state institutions create barriers to economic development and poverty reduction. They therefore advocate a reduction or elimination of the role of the state in food marketing or public services such as rural extension. Poverty and social impact assessments are not undertaken prior to the implementation of such policies. Despite their role and influence on national policies, donors have been unwilling to take responsibility for the impact of their policies. Donor responses to the current food emergency need to start with an acknowledgement of their responsibility, together with past and present southern African governments, for the increase in poverty and vulnerability in southern Africa. They must be willing to explore, together with southern African governments and citizens, pro-poor macroeconomic, debt relief and budgetary policies, even where these differ from orthodox beliefs. Without these two steps, Christian Aid fears, the ‘vicious cycle of vulnerability, crisis, and poverty’6 in southern Africa will not be broken. Unless the causes of this crisis are tackled, another bout of erratic weather will trigger yet another crisis, possibly on an even more catastrophic scale.

  1. Christoper Eldrige, ‘Why Was There No Famine Following the 1992 Southern African Drought?’, Institute of Development Studies Bulletin, Vol 33, No 4, 2002.
  2. In 1996, 69.2 per cent of the population in Zambia was below the poverty line; by 1998, the figure had risen to 72.9 (Zambian PRSP). In 1999 68 per cent of the population were poor (defined as having monthly expenditures below M80) compared to 49 per cent in 1990 (Lesotho I-PRSP).
  3. UNDP, A Decentralizacao de Angola, Luanda, 2002.
  4. T Hodges, Angola from Afro-Stalinism to Petro-Diamond Capitalism (Oxford: James Curry, 2001).
  5. Supplementary memorandum submitted by DFID to the International Development Committee, House of Commons, in ‘The Humanitarian Crisis in Southern Africa’, House of Commons, IDC, 2003, Ev 15.
  6. This analysis was adopted by the House of Commons International Development Committee, to which Christian Aid gave evidence in November 2002. Quoted in ‘The Humanitarian Crisis in Southern Africa’, Third Report of Session 2002/03, Vol 1, House of Commons, International Development Committee.

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