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Scoping study towards DFIDSA's Regional Hunger and Vulnerability Programme

Abridged version, August 2004

prepared by SARPN (

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The Southern African Regional Poverty Network (SARPN) would like to thank Tom Kelly, DFIDSA Humanitarian Advisor and John Howell, DFID Programme Design Consultant for the guiding role they have played throughout this scoping exercise. SARPN would also like to acknowledge and thank the DFID country offices for their assistance, especially:

  • John Hansell & Clare Barkworth, Zambia;
  • Harry Potter, Malawi;
  • Tom Barrett, Zimbabwe;
  • Diana Webster & James Atema, Lesotho; and
  • Julia Compton & Emidio Oliveira, Mozambique;
As well as a special thanks to:

  • Amanda Sealy and Cecilia Chuisiwa, British High Commission, Botswana,
  • Lungile Mndzebele and Alex Rees of the Vulnerability Assessment Committee in Swaziland, and
  • The SARPN support staff, Ilona de Villiers & Ingrid du Toit, for their assistance in the scoping exercise.
SARPN would also like to thank all those people who gave of their time to discuss regional hunger and vulnerability issues with the scoping team (see Annex 1 for names & organisations).

Authors: Steve Wiggins, Nick Maunder, James Carnegie, Ben Roberts, Reuben Mokoena & Norma Tregurtha.

This scoping exercise was funded by the Department for International Development of the British Government (DFID). However the findings, interpretations and conclusions expressed in this paper are entirely those of SARPN and should not be attributed to DFID, who do not guarantee their accuracy and can accept no responsibility for any consequences of their use.

The original report submitted by SARPN to DFID contained a number of recommendations for DFID in designing their Regional Hunger and Vulnerability Programme. These recommendations are currently being considered by DFID and cover the four key areas outlined in section VII of the strategy paper (online:

© SARPN, South Africa

Executive Summary

Analysts generally agree that the poor weather that was the immediate cause of the harvest failures of 2002 was not the only cause of the crisis. Its depth owed a great deal more to underlying problems that left poor households and governments more vulnerable to shocks than they had been in the past. The extent of harvest failure in 2002 was far less than in 1991/92 when one of the worst droughts of the C20 struck the region. Yet the scale and depth of the crisis in 2002 was far greater. Moreover, it has lingered on with food aid shipments continuing through 2003 and into 2004.

DFID contributed to alleviating the crisis; and has subsequently implemented a process to develop a longer-term regional hunger and vulnerability programme. Part of the process has been drawing up DFID’s Regional Hunger and Vulnerability (RH&V) Strategy, which outlines four areas where DFID will deliver support through a three-year Regional Hunger and Vulnerability Programme (RHVP) to improve regional food security. The four pillars of the strategy are:
  • Strengthening vulnerability monitoring and assessment systems;

  • More effective safety nets;

  • Promoting the role of the private sector and enhancing regional trade; and

  • Strengthening regional policy discussions.

The Scoping Study towards the RHVP is based on the premise that there are policy and institutional limitations across the region that, if satisfactorily addressed, will enhance poor people’s access to food and thereby meet a key objective of DFID strategy.

The framework within which the scoping study was carried out was based on an outline narrative summary of the RHVP. This included the goal of the RHVP: “To reduce vulnerability to food insecurity in the Southern African region”. The purpose is: “to promote region-wide adoption and implementation of coordinated policies with respect to the availability, access and utilisation of food”.

The proposed outputs on which the scoping was based included:
  • Regional information systems to support policies for humanitarian and development assistance improved;

  • Understanding and dissemination of effective instruments for social protection of those at risk of food insecurity enhanced;

  • The factors that inhibit regional food trade understood, and solutions developed; and

  • Regional policy research and advocacy networks contributing to addressing key policy issues in the region strengthened.

The purpose of this scoping project is to inform the design of DFIDSA’s RHVP by identifying opportunities for DFID to support national or, particularly, regional initiatives that will enhance food security through policy or institutional interventions in one or more of the four priority areas.

The core process of the methodology involved two regional scoping studies run in parallel around which the other activities focused. The project ran continuously over June and July 2004, and consisted of the following main activities:
  • Literature reviews for both studies;

  • Attending the DFID supported RVAC process;

  • Interviewing key regional stakeholders/informants in South Africa;

  • Visiting countries in the region including Zambia, Malawi, Lesotho, Zimbabwe, Swaziland and Mozambique;

  • Visiting SADC and regional players in Gaborone, Botswana;

  • Holding an advisory meeting with regional specialists; and

  • Drafting and submitting a report.

SARPN was the regional institution responsible for the design, management, co-ordination and quality of the outcome of the project, working from its offices in Pretoria, South Africa. Mike de Klerk directed the project, and James Carnegie of Khanya – managing rural change, co-ordinated the process. Study Team 1 was led by Nick Maunder supported by Ben Roberts, and Steve Wiggins supported by Reuben Mokoena and Norma Tregurtha, of the DFIDSA-supported ComMark Trust, led Study Team 2.

SARPN reported to a DFID Steering Committee, which was responsible for giving guidance to, and ensuring the focused direction of, the scoping studies. The Steering Committee included a small team of DFIDSA Advisors led by Tom Kelly, Regional Humanitarian Advisor with representatives from SADC DFID country offices, the London Policy Division and John Howell, the Programme Design Consultant.


Key concepts for the scoping project are those of food security and vulnerability. Food security is commonly said to exist when people at all times have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food which meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life. Achieving this is understood to involve:
  • Ensuring that a wide variety of food is available in local markets and fields (availability);

  • People have enough money to purchase a variety of foods (access); and

  • Food is eaten in an environment that supplies appropriate care, clean water, and good sanitation and health services (utilization).
Vulnerability refers to the degree of exposure to factors that threaten well-being and the extent to which individuals, households and other social groups can cope with these factors. In the case of vulnerability to food insecurity an important distinction is drawn between transitory and chronic food insecurity. Transitory food insecurity occurs when there is a temporary inability to meet food needs, usually associated with a specific shock or stress such as drought, floods or civil unrest. In contrast chronic food insecurity occurs when people are unable to meet their minimum food requirements over a sustained period of time. This is usually associated with slowly changing factors which have increased people’s exposure to shocks or else decreased their ability to cope with the effects of these shocks – essentially increased their vulnerability.

Key Findings

The widely shared perception is that vulnerability to food insecurity has increased significantly in southern Africa over the last decade. Over this period the impact of structural adjustment has led to a withdrawal of the state from the local level and, along with HIV/AIDS, this is seen to have precipitated a long-term livelihoods decline (CARE, 2003). The 2001/02 drought and poor policy choices compounded the underlying problems and precipitated a major food security crisis.

The perception of increased vulnerability is borne out by unacceptable regional stunting rates amongst children under five. There is a high, and increased, level of vulnerability to future shocks. Therefore the next regional drought, in five or ten years, can be anticipated to generate an even larger need for emergency support.

The Vulnerability Assessment Committees (VACs) established through an SADC initiated process have been at the heart of efforts to understand food insecurity in the region. However, their activities have been dominated by the need to provide analysis for emergency response planning. As the crisis recedes it is essential for the VAC system to focus on the longer-term more developmental goal of overcoming chronic food insecurity while continuing to help people overcome short-term crises.

Priorities for the VAC system include:
  • Maintaining a focus on improving food insecurity and vulnerability data quality, integrating and exchanging this information and promoting the better use of information to improve action;

  • Moving away from a focus on data collection towards working with, and supporting government data collection systems;

  • Greater emphasis on the analysis of food insecurity and vulnerability, its occurrence and causes;

  • Greater emphasis on relating this information to the needs of decision makers, government and donors, at policy level; and

  • Capacity building within the system to improve the ability of stakeholders to engage with the debate on food insecurity and vulnerability.
Ultimately the success of the VAC system will be determined at the national, rather than regional, level. NVACs will require national level support, from Governments in conjunction with donors, to achieve these goals. There are encouraging signs of growing multi-donor support at the national level. It should be acknowledged that regional support cannot substitute for sustained national level commitments.

Another important area is that of social protection, which is increasingly seen as a precursor to effective growth, providing an essential boost to human resource development, rather than a competitor for investment. From this perspective a social protection framework, can provide an important part of the search for solutions to food insecurity and poverty. A number of key needs emerge. The first is a requirement for better information to underpin planning. This would be met through the VAC system providing information and analysis of those affected by chronic and transitory food insecurity and a better understanding of risks and shocks.

There is a need to exchange information within the region on exiting social protection mechanisms, their successes and failures and the necessary pre-conditions to bring these pilots to scale. It is notable that there is no regional, or even national, institution or organisation currently tasked with this responsibility. There was a strong demand across all stakeholders for the establishment of such a regional facility.

Trade can play an important role in making food available. The scope for trade in most years is limited, since in much of the region the lowest cost staple foods are those grown domestically, given the cost of transport that applies to imports. But when harvests fail, as they typically have done at around twice a decade in recent times, there are only two options: draw down of stores, or else import. Storage is generally more expensive than imports.

Trade in basic foods is thus erratic. When imports are needed, they are often needed in large quantities that strain the capacity of transport routes and require large amounts of foreign exchange to finance them. Keeping financial reserves is one response to the latter problem, another, untried and innovative, possibility is using weather-based insurance. Futures and options markets may one day have a role to play, but for the moment the scope for their use is limited.

Three sets of obstacles hinder trade in basic foods: the high cost of transport, in part owing to the parlous state of many of the region’s railways; arbitrary government interventions to restrict or control trade; and, the diverse difficulties that traders face in accessing information, completing paperwork, meeting (often disparate) standards, getting credit and making international transfers.

Trade is somewhat segmented between the bulk shipments made by public agencies and large-scale traders, on the one hand; and the many petty movements made by small-scale operators on the other. In some parts of the region, the combined weight of the small-scale movements probably constitutes the majority of food traded. By and large, small-scale traders face more severe restrictions to their operations, as listed above, than larger companies.

Considerations of food security tend to be dominated by food availability concerns, seen at national level, in years of poor harvests. Issues of access to food, and of its utilisation, are less well attended. Individual and household perspectives, social differentiation, and the fate of the chronically poor tend to get second-best attention.

To influence food security policy effectively it is necessary to generate more evidence in the fields of trade and markets for basic foods, vulnerability and the management of social risks, and the interactions of health, sanitation with food intake. Equally, there is a pressing need to improve the way that evidence is disseminated to those making policy decisions, a task that calls for more understanding of policy processes.

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