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Southern Africa's food and humanitarian crisis of 2001-04: causes and lessons

Discussion Paper for Agricultural Economics Society Conference 2005. Revised version.

Steve Wiggins

Overseas Development Institute (ODI)

10 May 2005

SARPN acknowledges permission from Steve Wiggins for permission to post this paper.
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The food and humanitarian crisis that broke out in Southern Africa in 2001 at its high point in late 2002 threatened the lives and livelihoods of as many as 16 million persons in the six most-affected countries of Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe. It prompted a large-scale response from governments, NGOs and official aid donors the last group of which has contributed well over US$1 billion to relief and recovery efforts since 2002.

The crisis is, not surprisingly for an event that embraced six different countries and has spread over several years, complicated and our understanding of why it occurred and what the most effective and appropriate responses should have been, and still may be in terms of recovery, is incomplete. This paper explores explanations of the event, the multiple layers of overlapping crises, the corresponding policy agenda, and some points that represent important challenges for practising agricultural economists.

Analyses of the underlying causes of the crisis cover three complementary, but sometimes competing hypotheses: the failures of development and consequent widespread increased vulnerability for poor households; the impacts of the HIV/AIDS pandemic; and the failings of particular agricultural and food policies. Each of these might have been sufficient in itself to prompt the crisis seen, making a precise explanation of the problem difficult.

Some simple, and apparently novel, thought pieces suggest that the HIV/AIDS pandemic could not have been more than a minor contributor to the harvest failures, although it has intensified the impacts of the shock to the food economy by reducing the incomes and coping abilities of affected households. But if HIV/AIDS is not a major cause of the food crisis, it constitutes in itself a terrible crisis: an estimated 500,000 persons lost their lives to the syndrome in 2003 alone.

The influence of policy errors is more difficult to judge. That said, the implosion of the Zimbabwean commercial farm economy has been both a major contributor to the problems of 2002-03, and largely explains why the crisis has lingered on beyond the harvest of 2003. In trying to understand the nature of event, it useful to think of it as a set of four layered crises. At the base, there is widespread chronic poverty in Southern Africa that leaves the majority of the population on the verge of hunger, and which is cruelly revealed in a little-commented crisis of child nutrition and mortality. To the grim toll of HIV/AIDS can be added between 100,000 and 200,000 deaths of under-fives that would not occur if Southern Africa had health conditions similar to those that apply in other parts of the developing world. On top of this, the widespread harvest failures of 2001 and 2002 represent a transitory shock to the food economy that affects everyone in the countries concerned, but which has a particularly strong impact on the poor many whom depend heavily on farming for their incomes, or who are net buyers of food. Across all of this lies the layer of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, that again has particularly strong impacts on the poor. And finally we can add the Zimbabwe political impasse to the mix of problems, affecting primarily the population of Zimbabwe, but with some knock-one effects for neighbouring countries.

From this we can identify different impacts on no less than nine distinct, if overlapping groups of people. This allows a policy agenda to be constructed for each group that has three dimensions in the economy and the agricultural economy in particular, in social protection, and in health, nutrition, water and sanitation.

From the long list of issues that arise, three have been selected here for discussion since they are of prime interest to agricultural economists and rural development specialists: how to get agriculture moving, since in most countries agriculture is the base of the economy; how to stabilise food prices to avoid the price shock experienced; and, how to confront the severe incidence of child malnutrition and mortality. None of these are new questions for agricultural economists, but generating better and more precise answers is critical for improved policies in the region.

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