Year-ender 2002 - New thinking needed on food security

[Malawi] "I do not have a plan to survive...I may not be here in 2 months
time," says 70 year old Sinos Khatcha who is struggling to survive in the face of Malawi's current food crisis.
Vulnerable at risk again as new food crisis deepens (Marcus Perkins/Tearfund)

Southern Africa's food crisis is not a short-term transitory phenomenon that will be over when this year's harvest is gathered. It points, instead, to a failure of development policies and the impact of HIV/AIDS, for which there are no easy solutions, humanitarian officials acknowledge.

Over 14 million people in six countries are at risk through a combination of poverty, the HIV/AIDS epidemic, government policy mistakes, and the collapse of social services and traditional safety nets. UN agencies and NGOs have called for a rethink of development strategies and partnerships that can help lift the region's subsistence farmers out of chronic food insecurity.

Although the immediate humanitarian response "has gone someway to stabilise the situation ... the outlook is clearly not good and there are not many reasons for hope," Chris Kaye, the Regional Disaster Response Advisor of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said.

By the end of December the food component (US $507 million) of the UN's US $611 million consolidated appeal for the region was only 62 percent funded. Donors were even less generous towards non-food projects, providing only 20 percent of the money needed. An anticipated El Nino year in 2003 threatens another drought, but that is likely to be overshadowed by the expected war in Iraq, which will divert attention from the Southern Africa crisis, Kaye said.

THE DEVELOPMENT DILEMNA

The humanitarian response of providing food aid "will not solve the problem because the underlying causes of the HIV/AIDS pandemic will not make this famine a normal famine. There is no end to it because people are too weak to plant, too weak to harvest so this will go on. The problems don't go away with better weather. That means the response of governments and the international community make must recognise that," Urban Jonsson, the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) Regional Director for Eastern and Southern Africa told IRIN in November.

"There are no answers at the moment," Michael Drinkwater, the regional coordinator of the development NGO CARE International conceded. "We are looking at a situation where countries will need ongoing assistance for many years to come in agriculture, health, at the macro-economic level ... Throwing money at it is not going to help, we need to work much more strategically."

The failure of rains over two consecutive seasons should not have precipitated a crisis as deep as the region has now experienced. The current emergency, therefore, points to a slow erosion of people's coping mechanisms exposing a more deep-seated and complex problem of vulnerability. According to UNICEF, for example, 59 percent of Zambian children under five were already malnourished in 2000. In Malawi it was 49 percent, 44 percent in Lesotho and 27 percent in Zimbabwe.

Even under normal conditions, subsistence farmers in Malawi can only grow 90 percent of their food needs. From December until the next harvest in March, many eke out an existence by providing casual labour known as "ganyu" within the community, using money earned to buy food on the market. But if the planting season has been poor, labour opportunities dry up and the price of food on the market rises.

"That daily wage rate has not changed in five years, it's about 20 kwacha [US 27 cents] per day. But the inflation rate in Malawi has been outstanding. So you have this inflation rate, to which all the other prices get adjusted accordingly - fuel transport, maize prices, they're all directly linked. But the casual labour rate hasn't budged - it's a precarious situation," Nicholas Haan, Regional Programme Advisor of the World Food Programme's (WFP) Vulnerability Analysis and Mapping unit told IRIN in June.

A FAILURE OF GOVERNMENT?

Most of Southern Africa's agriculture is rain fed. The staple crop is maize, a non-indigenous plant which is not drought-resistant, but as a commercial crop has edged out more traditional and hardier cereals from national diets. The lack of irrigation and crop diversification means that small-scale farmers are particularly vulnerable to climatic changes in a region where drought is endemic.

"A lot of lip service has been paid to agriculture in the region," Reggie Mugwara, the director of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Food and Natural Resources Unit explained. "I think we need to redirect our investments back into agriculture, particularly smallholder agriculture, which is the engine of growth for most of the countries that have been affected [by the drought]."

A failure of governance - poor accountability and a lack of democratisation - has been cited as one of the key causes for the region's emergency. The finger has been repeatedly pointed at Zimbabwe's land reform programme, which has undermined a previously robust agricultural economy, and financial mismanagement in Malawi, which led to a decision to sell off the country's grain reserve as shortages were already becoming apparent.

"Famine is always a product of decision-making failures. Southern Africa is where it is now because of the decisions and actions of the powerful. Thus, the key solution to preventing hunger lies in increasing people's participation in, and the effectiveness of, governance," Donald Mavunduse, emergencies programme adviser with the UK-based NGO Acton Aid wrote in in an Overseas Development Institute (ODI) report.

A lack of management capacity by governments has also been mentioned as a contributory factor. "Disasters happen, whether it is floods or whatever. What is important is what capacity, what policies have been put in place, what is it that needs to be done institutionally to strengthen the institutions in order to respond [effectively]?" Mugwara asked. This was a goal that greater regional policy integration through SADC could help to achieve, he noted.

Famine early warning systems in Southern Africa have in the past typically looked at "macro data" of rainfall and crop yields rather than the "ground-truthing" to determine people's ability to afford food - the kind of analysis that raised the first alarm over conditions in Malawi in 2001. "At present many governments in Southern Africa do not have the capacity for a well-functioning statistics system. [Economic] liberalisation has led to contracts for data collection and analysis being put up on a two-three years basis, so there is little institutional learning. Such turnover is too high to help Africa," participants at an ODI meeting in July noted.

QUESTIONING THE DONORS

But at the policy level, there is also little room for new thinking by African governments. They are constrained by the "Washington consensus" on market reforms championed by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) as the ideologically correct development path. It frowns on government intervention, and looks at short-term financial considerations rather than medium-term food security, critics argue. The debt burden also robs governments of development resources.

The role of the state has been downsized - it is no longer that of a food security guarantor, however inefficiently it operated in the past. Subsidised inputs such as fertiliser were stopped, social services starved of funds, and the commodity boards that fixed producer prices and collected farmers' produce abolished. They were supposed to have been replaced by the private sector, but in most cases local entrepreneurs could not rise to the challenge or lacked the profit incentive to reach the more remote regions.

The poor, for the most part, are now on their own. "The reform programmes, yes are necessary, [but] they are painful ... I think we need some contingency plans in order to minimise the worst effects," said Mugwara. "You can't go back to the old ways, but we cannot also ignore the present realities ... that the vulnerable are much more vulnerable than they were."

Smallholder agriculture, the predominant source of livelihoods in Africa, had proved to be at least as efficient as large farms when farmers received similar support services in inputs like seeds, fertiliser and credit, the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) said in a report last year. Raising their output would stimulate the rest of the economy. Each 1 percent increase in agricultural productivity had been shown to reduce poverty by 0.6 percent, the institute said.

But public investment in African agriculture has been falling for many years. World Bank lending for agriculture slumped from about 31 percent of its total lending in 1979-81 to less than 10 percent in 1999-2000. The funding levels required to boost agriculture "depart sharply from recent trends", IFPRI acknowledged.

In a report on the food crisis released in June, Oxfam warned that until the right to food was put at the top of the agenda of international financial institutions and national governments, food security would remain precarious. It said Africa needed policies that were carefully thought-out and implemented, and not driven by dogma, political opportunism or hypocrisy.

"At the same time as African farmers are told that they can no longer have free seeds or fertilisers, US farmers are receiving an average US $20,000 a year in subsidies - which is soon to increase by 70 percent - and EU [European Union] farmers US $16,000," noted the briefing paper.

It cited an IMF evaluation that found that in Zambia between 1991 and 1994, the liberalisation of state marketing had contributed to a 30 percent increase in rural poverty. "It is clear that without some form of state intervention as a safety net, poor people have become much more vulnerable to shocks such as erratic weather. Unfortunately, the IMF and other donors are not learning this lesson."

African countries also face gigantic hurdles in establishing an agro-export economy to trade their way out of poverty, due to tariff barriers and produce dumping by European and US producers. "Rich countries spend vast sums of money protecting the interests of their producers, while at the same time forcing poor countries to open their markets to subsidised imports," Oxfam argued.

Chris Kaye believes that both regional governments and the international community need to reform the way they operate, and develop a "compact" on the way forward.

"Governments must wake up to their responsibilities and show they are caring for their own people, because if they don't, no self-respecting donor will do that for them." By the same token, he said, the depth of the problems confronted by the region required a "much more concerted effort by donors ... otherwise Southern Africa will go down the tube".


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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