1. Home
  2. Africa
  3. Southern Africa

Interview with Chris Kaye, head of OCHA regional office

Chris Kaye: "The recovery that we thought was emerging at the middle of last year, following the harvest, was very fragile."
Southern Africa is facing another difficult year of food insecurity, brought on by the late onset of rains, and the on-going impact of HIV/AIDS and problems of governance. Donors have so far provided US $168 million of a US $533 million humanitarian appeal covering six countries in the region. IRIN spoke to Chris Kaye, the head of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs Regional Office for Southern Africa, on the humanitarian community's response to the current emergency. QUESTION: How would you describe the humanitarian situation in the region? ANSWER: It's worrying, inasmuch as the optimism we had at the beginning of the appeal period [July 2003] is fading. The optimism was based on the very significant contributions that had been made by the international community, in response to the appeal for 2002/03, and the growing awareness of the interrelatedness of the food security problems with HIV/AIDS, and the impact that was having on the overall capacity of governments to respond. The understanding that a second year of humanitarian assistance was needed seemed to be quite evident among the donor community, and we were hoping that the momentum that had been created in 2002/03 was going to follow through [into the current appeal]. Certainly, the sentiment was there - we heard from donors in New York that they were very supportive of what we were trying to do - but it hasn't followed through in terms of funding, particularly for the support needed to shore up social service provision. Without this support, the prospects for being able to significantly reduce vulnerability in the region are limited. Today the situation is being compounded as, once again, we are experiencing a serious lack of rainfall, and the impact that's already clearly having - in terms of food production and output for the region - most notably in South Africa and ... its immediate neighbours. Q: And drought in South Africa is significant because of its role as a regional food basket? A: South Africa is significant for the quantity of food it produces and the impact it has in terms of food availability for the region - and, obviously, the level of availability has an impact on prices. Countries like Swaziland and Lesotho, which are food-deficit countries and rely on their own funds to purchase food to feed their populations, are clearly going to struggle if the shortages in the region mean prices go up. So, in this situation, where food insecurity is already a problem due to limited production possibilities, poor agricultural practices and so on, higher prices will mean the rural poor are going to have a very tough time. Q: The donor response to the appeal in terms of funding for non-food items seems to be very low. How does that impact on food security and recovery for the region? A: The message we've been putting out is that the problems of vulnerability in the region cannot be addressed with food assistance alone; that complimentary assistance to shore up social service provision is a prerequisite. Vulnerability isn't just a function of how much food a community or a family is able to produce, it's about their access to basic social services that provide for a decent livelihood and livelihood opportunities. So, access to health services, to clean water, and, indeed, access to education for kids, all have a contributing impact on levels of vulnerability - particularly in the light of HIV/AIDS, where more and more families are being impacted; where one or both parents are being lost to HIV/AIDS, and children are now taking responsibility. Providing the social services or structures to help those child-headed households is key to the future of many communities. Q: Can you give a run-through the region, identifying those countries in trouble? A: We are still looking at the six [Zimbabwe, Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia, Swaziland, Lesotho] that have been the focus [of the appeals]. We are particularly concerned, as I've already mentioned, with Swaziland and Lesotho, as they are food-deficit countries, and the impact of the drought in South Africa will affect their food security situation - more so than maybe some of the other countries, since they have to import [their food]. The drought has been perhaps more prevalent in Swaziland and Lesotho (and southern Mozambique) than any other parts of the region, so they are being hit twice. In Zimbabwe there's pockets of dry spots, certainly again in the south and southeast, but, generally, the growing conditions are not so bad in Zimbabwe, and they're reportedly good in Zambia. But as we say, it's not just a case of food availability. There's a whole number of other aspects that are compounding, or serving to undermine, the opportunities for people to survive in all six countries. In Malawi they're having an acute problem it seems, again in pockets, particularly in the south, because of a shortage of rain and poor growing conditions. It's a country that's wracked by poverty in any case - it doesn't really take very much to push communities or areas in Malawi completely over the edge, where emergency assistance [becomes] a prerequisite for people's survival. As we said at the beginning of the appealing period, the recovery that we thought was emerging at the middle of last year, following the harvest, was very fragile, and that impression is being borne out now, as we see the continuation of shocks which are continuing to pose a major problem for large numbers of people. It is clear that dramtic effort is needed to break out from the cycle of emergency assistance. Thats what we're pushing for. Q: What does this mean - another cycle of vulnerability, another appeal process for the region, and Zimbabwe in particular? A: The situation in Zimbabwe is particularly acute, as we all know, and the opportunities there for significant improvement through development aid are limited by virtue of the political considerations that the donor community have. As a consequence, humanitarian or emergency assistance seems to be the only way to provide for the people in Zimbabwe that are not being provided for by the government itself. As a consequence, we are moving Zimbabwe out of the fold, as it were, and using the mid-term [appeal] review to then launch a stand-alone appeal, which will then run throughout 2004, effectively from 1 January to 31 December. For the other five countries - presently we don't envisage launching a new set of consolidated appeals at the end of the current appealing period, which is 30 June. Now, that may change, depending on the evolution of the whole cropping season, and whether or not there is further deterioration of the situation - that it becomes so severe that WFP [the World Food Programme] in particular, and others involved in providing food security, require more of a traditional emergency response than the currently planned-for protracted relief and recovery operation, which they've mapped out for those five countries ... Now, with that said, we are absolutely committed to ensuring that if we don't have a consolidated appeal for those [five] countries - that we need to follow through with the same commitment that an 'emergency' approach brings - that we don't go back to business as usual. The experience of the past two years suggests that it has been the traditional approach to providing development assistance which has not adequately tackled the root causes that have given rise to the crisis. To that end, the UN has formulated a policy for the entire southern Africa and eastern Africa region that's been endorsed by the highest level of the UN system, the Chief Executive Board, under the chairmanship of Kofi Annan, which provides 22 programmatic and institutional actions. That will be undertaken by the UN to address the triple threat of food insecurity, and the weakened capacity of government because of HIV/AIDS. A process is in train to roll out this policy, and to ensure the UN and its partners maintain a very dynamic response to the needs of the region. Q: What are the key elements of that response? A: Well, as I've said, it's addressing the triple threat of Food insecurity, HIV/AIDS and weakened capacity for governance, and the response is made up of an integrated set of actions to address all three, using both long-term and short-term interventions. Food security is fundamental to the lives and livelihood of everyone in southern Africa and eastern Africa - that we know. HIV/AIDS is destryoing the future of large numbers of individuals, families, communities, and, indeed, societies. The third element is how HIV/AIDS is eating away at the capacity of governments themselves. The fact that there are more teachers dying in Zambia, because of AIDS, than Zambia is at the moment able to train, is just once example of a situation where the UN system is focussing its attention. It's this level of governance where HIV/AIDS is weakening capacity, which itself is having such a huge impact on future development. Clearly this needs to be addressed immediately, as well as over the medium to long term. Q: In the Western press there have been reports, based on an audit of UK charities, that the regional crisis was overestimated and the drum was beaten too loudly. What's your take on those allegations? A: Overestimation, I think, is totally the wrong way of looking at it - the overestimation accusation is just unfounded. As to beating the drum too loudly? Perhaps - but only inasmuch that I understand there was some criticism of the overuse of the "f" word - famine. Since the beginning of the crisis in April 2002, the United Nations system certainly has been extremely cautious in the use of that word. We recognised that the spectre of famine was a real possibility if assistance wasn't forthcoming. Assistance was forthcoming, and we didn't have famine. There were incidents of starvation, for sure, in parts of Malawi, which was quite significantly affected, and in southern Zambia, in the periods following the harvest in 2002, there was starvation. But the accusation that the numbers were exaggerated was not a fair one at all. We've had in this region perhaps the most robust, the most collaborative assessment methodology that I've experienced in the 14 years I've been involved in this business... We were very concerned about ensuring that we were absolutely clear who was being most affected, and where those people were. The three rolling assessments undertaken in 2002/3, jointly by the UN, NGOS, SADC [the Southern African Development Community] and governments, verified what the previous assessments had shown and, I believe, they speak for themselves. The first assessment identifed approximately 12.8 million [at risk in the six countries]. This was verified by the results of the second assessment in September 2003, and increased after the third assessment in April 2003 to 14.4 million. This suggests that, if anything, we underestimated the numbers the first time around. Furthermore ... the detail of actually what's been achieved by the NGOs has been overlooked by these press reports and has not been fairly represented.

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

Share this article

Get the day’s top headlines in your inbox every morning

Starting at just $5 a month, you can become a member of The New Humanitarian and receive our premium newsletter, DAWNS Digest.

DAWNS Digest has been the trusted essential morning read for global aid and foreign policy professionals for more than 10 years.

Government, media, global governance organisations, NGOs, academics, and more subscribe to DAWNS to receive the day’s top global headlines of news and analysis in their inboxes every weekday morning.

It’s the perfect way to start your day.

Become a member of The New Humanitarian today and you’ll automatically be subscribed to DAWNS Digest – free of charge.

Become a member of The New Humanitarian

Support our journalism and become more involved in our community. Help us deliver informative, accessible, independent journalism that you can trust and provides accountability to the millions of people affected by crises worldwide.