The humanitarian crisis in Southern Africa 2002вЂ“03, Volume I
In early 2002 southern Africa was gripped by food shortages. These were just one aspect
of a complex humanitarian crisis, with impacts ranging across all sectors, from
agriculture, to education and health. The trigger for the crisis was erratic rainfall. The
vulnerability of the population meant that a moderate environmental shock was enough to
push communities beyond the limits of their normal coping strategies, and over the edge.
The sources of vulnerability in southern Africa are: deep and widespread poverty;
HIV/AIDS; and, poor governance and inappropriate policies. Poor governance is nowhere
more evident than in Robert MugabeвЂ™s Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe would normally be a part of
the solution to food shortages in southern Africa: at present, it is a major part of the
problem. In Malawi, the sale of the Strategic Grain Reserve and the allegations of
corruption which surround it, illustrated the role that poor governance plays, and
exacerbated the food shortages.
A major international effort has been made to respond to the crisis. The aim is to prevent
unnecessary suffering and deaths, and to sow the seeds for sustainable development in the
region. It seems that a repeat of the events of early 2002 will be avoided this year. The
international humanitarian response was initially clouded by concerns about governments
in the region, and has been disrupted by concerns about genetically-modified maize. But
overall, the relief effort, led by the World Food Programme, has been a success.
Short-term humanitarian responses must now be integrated into longer-term development.
If rural livelihoods are to be improved, the neglect of agriculture must end. Nothing else
has the potential to lift millions of poor rural people out of poverty. If communities are to
be protected from future shocks, safety nets and social protection measures must be put in
place. Well-designed public works programmesвЂ”providing food, cash, or agricultural
inputs for workвЂ”and targeted inputs programmesвЂ”providing seeds and fertiliserвЂ”offer
an effective way of ensuring that short term relief contributes to longer-term
development. If communities are to escape from poverty and move towards sustainable
development, they must be provided with opportunities; better access to agricultural
inputs (seeds, fertiliser, water, land and credit) and assistance as regards agricultural
outputs (maize prices, markets, diversification and exports).
Tackling HIV/AIDS must be a priority as regards both short-term and long-term
interventions. Food aid must not miss out the millions of AIDS orphans, and must be
nutritionally appropriate. Longer-term development strategies must be based on laboursaving
If the countries of southern Africa are to escape the vicious circle of vulnerability, crisis,
poverty and HIV/AIDS, governments, donors, NGOs, the private sector and international
organisations will have to work together more effectively, and work together regionally.
They must make themselves accountable for their actions, so that they put themselves on
the path to increased effectiveness. In this way, the вЂњright to foodвЂќ may become reality
rather than rhetoric. If the lessons of the crisis are learnt and applied, and the international
community stays engaged, the crisis of 2001-03 in southern Africa might be remembered
for the benefits it produced, as well as for the avoidable suffering it inflicted.