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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
- Christoper Eldrige, ‘Why Was There No Famine Following the 1992 Southern African Drought?’, Institute of Development Studies Bulletin, Vol 33, No 4, 2002.
- 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).
- UNDP, A Decentralizacao de Angola, Luanda, 2002.
- T Hodges, Angola from Afro-Stalinism to Petro-Diamond Capitalism (Oxford: James Curry, 2001).
- 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.
- 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.