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The underlying causes of the food crisis in the Southern African region - Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia and Zimbabwe

Oxfam GB policy research paper

March 2004

Scott Drimie (

SARPN acknowledges permission from Oxfam GB for permission to post this report. It was commissioned by Oxfam GB as a policy research paper.
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Introduction & Objectives

In the 2002-2003 period, Southern Africa experienced the worst food crises the region has encountered since 1992. Most assessments of this period of acute food insecurity and vulnerability have understood this phenomenon to be as much a crisis of livelihoods, or of development in general, as a simple food shock. The key difference between 1992 and 2002 is that the latter crisis can be attributed to a number of factors other than climate, among them structural imbalance, governance, economic and social decline, HIV/AIDS and to a lesser extent drought. The crisis produced a substantial emergency response but also drew attention to the overall plight of Southern Africa, where poverty and food insecurity are on the increase and which have been compounded by a worsening HIV/AIDS situation.

A number of reviews and reports have attempted to shed light on this complex mix of factors and to gauge appropriate policy responses. Although the worst aspects appear to waning in parts of the region, its causes are still largely in place. Nearing a major policy review and assessment, Oxfam-GB has taken the opportunity to reflect on the experiences of the past three years to better understand the underlying causes, to re-assess what needs to be done to mitigate its recurrence, and to look back at the livelihood strategies in the region and evaluate the factors that affect these. A number of Oxfam-GB staff in both Oxford and within the regional and national offices of Southern Africa have recognised that increasing numbers of households are now less able to cope with even relatively small crop losses and food price increases. Questions around the definition of the crisis have been raised, debating whether this was a "food crisis" in the "classical" sense or a crisis surrounding people’s livelihoods with long-term implications for Oxfam-GB’s response and strategy. Indeed, unless the underlying causes of long-term vulnerability in people’s livelihoods are addressed, an increased frequency and severity of humanitarian crises in southern Africa will be inevitable, and particularly crises of unusually severe food insecurity which threatens people's lives and livelihoods.

This paper sets out to inform the development of Oxfam-GB’s strategy to promote sustainable livelihoods in the region through programmes and advocacy, by providing an analysis of the different factors affecting people’s food and livelihood security. In particular, this research has been commissioned to "identify the critical underlying causes of the food crisis in four southern Africa countries, namely Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi and Mozambique, in the 2002-2003 period and the short to medium term solutions required to address them and their relationship to longer term issues". Realising the broad nature of these areas, the research specifically sets out to:

  1. Develop a brief outline of the extent of the crisis in the region over the 2002-2003 and 2003-2004 periods;

  2. Review the impacts of HIV/AIDS on people’s livelihoods, looking particularly at the effects of the epidemic on households and communities over time and recognising the critical role of gender relations in mediating effects;

  3. Review the impact of the removal of agricultural subsidies on livelihood and food production in the region, with particular attention on how the removal of subsidies has affected food production and the livelihood situation of households and communities;

  4. Review the impact of the removal of price controls on food crops and how this has affected the access of food for poor households recognising the ways gender mediates access;

  5. Identify how drought has contributed to the crisis;

  6. Review the impact of the land reform programme on food security especially in Zimbabwe;

  7. Develop policy recommendations that are gender sensitive for governments, donors, regional bodies and other actors on the above areas on how to address the situation in order to prevent recurrence of the 2002-2003 situation, further decline in food security, to support any progress made on food security and to promote further livelihood security in ways that enhance gender equality within the next two to three years.
Using these objectives as a framework, the report has been structured in the following manner. Firstly, an outline of the extent of the food crisis in the region in the period 2002 to 2004 has been laid out. This is followed by sections focusing on the impacts of HIV/AIDS on people’s livelihoods, the impact of the removal of agricultural subsidies on livelihood and food production, the impact of removal of price controls on food crops, the impact of drought on the region and the impact of land reform. A summary of the key policy and strategy implications are then distilled from the analysis followed by a number of suggested policy recommendations. Some key references have been referred to throughout the analysis, which are detailed at the end, as well as an interview list of individuals who provided insights into this recent crisis and volunteered recommendations for Oxfam-GB’s future approach (see appendix one).

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