An independent audit company has revealed that while the work of British charities during the 2002/03 southern African food crisis had eased suffering and prevented the loss of millions of lives, in some cases the scale of the crisis may have been exaggerated.
Valid International (VI) said the handling of the humanitarian crisis was "generally good", but was "overstated in terms of the threat of famine".
The UK-based auditing firm specialises in assessing the quality and accountability of humanitarian assistance.
Food shortages affected some 14 million people in six countries across the region in 2002. Aid agencies said the shortages were brought on by adverse weather conditions and governance failures, worsened by the prevalence of HIV/AIDS.
The VI report noted that in interviews with its evaluation team, a number of international aid agency staff members in Zambia remarked that they were surprised to find the situation was not as severe as had been portrayed by media coverage in the West.
But CARE Zambia's director, Brenda Cupper, told IRIN: "CARE has always maintained that there was a critical food shortage in Zambia which had the potential to develop into a famine if it was not dealt with. However, there are some stakeholders within the development community who often want to see either terrible wasting or a business-as-usual situation. The crisis in Zambia was neither of the two. However, this does not mean that the number of Zambians in need was overstated."
VI noted that there was a clear distinction between how agencies presented the crisis internally and externally.
"The internal presentation dealt with the chronic nature of the crisis, but the external presentation was far more dramatic and simplistic," the audit company said.
Richard Miller, a spokesman for the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC), an umbrella body for the charities, told IRIN: "The southern African crisis was a complex crisis, and conveying the seriousness of the situation was equally challenging. Admittedly, as in any complex humanitarian situation, mistakes are made. However, in the case of Zimbabwe we do not think the message was alarmist at all. As soon as the word spread about what the situation was really like in Zimbabwe, tonnes of food aid poured into the country."
At the height of the 2002 crisis close to 7 million Zimbabweans were in need of food aid.
The auditors' view was that while the crisis had the potential to affect millions and cause many deaths, it was unlikely to result in a crisis like the Ethiopian famine in 1984, when nearly a million died.
"It must be pointed out that, for the first time, the appeal for aid was intended to prevent a humanitarian crisis, rather than respond to one. The alerts were successful because they brought in food, which meant that many vulnerable people did not have to resort coping strategies which, in some cases, are detrimental in the long term," Miller added.
VI observed that the debate around whether the crisis had been overstated or not revealed a lack of knowledge and understanding of the communities where the charities worked, which raised doubts about the effectiveness of some of the long-term assistance programmes, and the ability of agencies to effectively assess the impact of the shocks on these communities.
For example, CARE's programmes to promote new crops in Zambia had failed to take into account market constraints.
But Cupper said CARE was aware of the constraints and instead focused on technical and agricultural support.
The VI also pointed to Save The Children's supplementary feeding scheme in Malawi which it claimed was also of questionable appropriateness, as it operated in the non-hungry season and ended in 2003, just as the hungry season was about to start, the report commented.
"There is definitely room for improvement regarding how agencies serve the most vulnerable. Although the report mentions that beneficiaries, especially in Zimbabwe, were part of the relief effort, there is acknowledgment within the organisation that more needs to be done to understand what the needs are of individual populations," said Miller.
Another concern raised was the delay in launching the appeal for assistance.
The DEC appealed for aid in July 2002, while most hunger-related mortality had occurred in Malawi during the preceding December to February period. VI said the appeal should have been launched earlier in 2002.
The audit report also called on agencies to undertake further research into understanding the link between HIV/AIDS, coping strategies and food security.
"The southern African crisis was definitely a learning curve for all those involved in humanitarian operations. For the first time, the international community had to operate within a context where there are extremely high HIV prevalence rates," Miller said.
"More research needs to done in understanding the role of nutrition in supporting those living with the disease. Also, we need to investigate labour-saving agricultural methods, since the disease has taken a toll of many of those who are supposed to be working on the land," he added.
For the full Valid International report see: www.dec.org.uk