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Regional themes > Food security Last update: 2020-11-27  

Anticipating and responding to drought emergencies in Southern Africa: lessons from the 2002-2003 experience

David Tschirley, Jan J. Nijhoff, Pedro Arlindo, Billy Mwinga, Michael T. Weber, and T.S. Jayne


Michigan State University

Prepared for the NEPAD Regional Conference on Successes in African Agriculture, 22-25 November 2004, in Nairobi, Kenya.

Posted with permission of T.S. Jayne, Michigan State University.
Further details of MSU projects on related issues in Southern Africa can be obtained from:
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Executive Summary

This paper examines the efficiency and effectiveness of emergency response in Southern Africa through the lens of the 2002/03 food crisis in the region. The authors outline improvements in information and operational procedures needed to enhance the response to future events. They also discuss national and regional trade regime changes that would reduce the need for emergency response, and consider what lessons the 2002/03 crisis may have for the role of Strategic Grain Reserves (SGRs).

Market reform in the region has lead to more diversified production patterns (cassava production especially has grown), more decentralized food distribution systems, and more varied food consumption patterns at least in urban areas. Each of these changes should reduce the region’s dependence on external food aid during droughts. Yet some researchers and policy makers have become concerned that many households in the region are becoming more vulnerable to shocks, not less. This apparent increase in vulnerability has become a standard part of the understanding of the 2002/03 food crisis.

A review of the chronology of early warning and response suggests that early warning clearly worked during the 2002/03 crisis. It alerted local governments and the international community to looming food shortages as the harvest was just beginning, provided quantitative estimates of the number of affected households and the need for food aid and commercial imports, regularly updated these numbers through effective communications, and mobilized public opinion and resources to meet enough of those estimated needs to largely avert a humanitarian crisis. The early warning and response process also reflected an exceptional degree of collaboration among governments in the region, the emergency response community, and donor agencies. The way in which the work of national VACs was coordinated by the SADC Regional VAC and fed into donor and relief agency response is especially impressive.

Whether the early warning information was “right” is a different and more complex question. One way to approach the issue is to ask whether, if estimated food aid and commercial import requirements had been met, the crisis would have been stemmed without negatively affecting markets. Stemming required meeting the current food needs of those with neither the income nor the assets to do so themselves while allowing households to avoid coping mechanisms that increase their vulnerability to future crises. Nutritional monitoring during the crisis was spotty but suggested that wasting was well below levels that would cause alarm. Because wasting is a lagging indicator, it should ideally be complemented by information on the sustainability of household coping behavior. Unfortunately, very little such information has become publically available, even though “a substantial volume of data was collected through the VAC surveys which might have shed more light on food security and vulnerability”. This is clearly an area that requires improvement.

Price behavior suggests great variation in market impacts across the region. Malawi created a major problem of oversupply late in the 2002/03 season and into the next, because it imported large amounts of grain commercially and as food aid, all through government channels, while completely ignoring informal trade. Because the 150,000-250,000 metric tons of informal imports arrived more quickly, government was left with a comparable amount of grain that it could sell only at a loss. As a result, maize prices throughout 2003/04 were exceptionally low. In Zambia, the experience in 2002/03 showed that the private sector could import substantial quantities of grain when needed, but better operational mechanisms need to be designed between public and private sectors if the government is to be assured in future crises that private sector will be able to import the quantities needed to keep prices stable. Mozambique provides evidence that this can happen on a regular basis when government simply stays out of the import business. Prices in Mozambique remained relatively stable during this crisis, and well below those in Zambia and Malawi.

White maize production and exports in the United States have trended upwards over the past decade. The U.S. market offers several potential benefits to the Southern African region. First, production potential is huge, and can scale-up or down rapidly in response to market opportunities. Second, grain from the U.S. can often compete with that from South Africa in coastal areas like Mozambique. Finally, U.S. white maize is 99% guaranteed GMO-free.

An efficient and effective response to future food crises in Southern Africa requires that food aid agencies and practitioners realize that food aid is all too often the first choice in response rather than the last, that its targeting is often poor (though it has improved over the past decade), that even food insecure households will often prefer cash resources instead of food, and that innovative approaches to promoting market response could reduce the need for food aid while not compromising the humanitarian response. A balanced approach also requires that market proponents and food aid skeptics realize that not providing food aid and other transfers to vulnerable households during crises can push them into poverty and undercut their ability to use markets to ensure their food security in future crises. In other words, food aid and other transfers provided in a timely manner to the right people can widen the future scope for market response, not narrow it.

Information needs include improved food balance sheets, household budget shares and crossprice elasticities of demand among staples, improved market price information, data on the incidence of different household coping mechanisms, and household income shares and an assessment of the likely impact of the crisis on the level of income from each source. Operationally, governments need much more actively to facilitate market response during crises, turning to food aid only if markets and market-facilitating measures are expected to be insufficient to meet immediate food needs and protect vulnerable households from excessive indebtedness or asset depletion.

Trade regulations in the region need to be simplified and harmonized. The paper provides a list of key areas for reform, but stresses that, at the same time, governments and donors in the region need to invest seriously in the professionalization of their customs services. What is needed is a customs service which facilitates legal trade, rather than the all-too-frequent pattern of using trade legalities to hinder open commercial trade and promote its informalization. Similar professionalization needs to take place among the market information services in the region.

Strategic Grain Reserves played no role in what has to be considered a successful response to the 2002/03 crisis. Yet SGRs are back on the policy agenda, despite the discouraging management record of such facilities in Africa. We suggest that government and donor time and money are likely to be better spent on continuing improvements to market information and early warning systems, on improved infrastructure for domestic food marketing, on more transparent policy towards external trade, and on market facilitating mechanisms that can be deployed when needed during crises.

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