The food crisis in Southern Africa
by Humanitarian Practice Network June 2003

The food crisis in Southern Africa has been catastrophic for millions of people: thousands of individuals have lost their lives, families have lost the people they depended on and cared for, and their communities have had their capacity to survive devastated. The human cost of the crisis has been immense; the social and economic costs have been far-reaching.

The crisis and the way it has been dealt with have raised serious questions about how aid works, about the responsibility and accountability of the governments of the affected countries, and of elected governments and donors in the West, and about the relationship between humanitarianism and development. In this issue’s special feature, John Seaman, Hisham Khogali and Donald Mavunduse, experienced NGO experts in food security and emergency response, look at the impact of the crisis and ask why it took nine months for the international community to respond. Suresh Babu and Ashwin Bhouraskar of the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and Christopher Eldridge of HelpAge present lessons drawn from research and previous experience. Moira Reddick looks at an initiative in real-time lesson learning in humanitarian response, and we have information about two research initiatives in ODI, one examining the origins of the crisis and how development policy might prevent a recurrence, the other looking at the way humanitarian need is measured and assessed and how that might be done more effectively.

This issue also carries articles by HPN members and readers on a range of other practice and policy issues. Sadiki Byombuka discusses the role of local organisations such as his, providing humanitarian assistance in eastern Congo. We would like more local, national organisations involved in humanitarian response to write about their experiences in these pages – and we’d encourage international organisations working with local partners to ask them to participate in the international humanitarian debate.

We also hear about a workshop in the US that looked at how agencies can enhance the protection dimension of their humanitarian action, about the dilemmas of providing long-term refugee support in Nepal, and how income-generation initiatives can help people and communities recover from conflict. Other articles look at how far the Sphere standards have been institutionalised by aid agencies, and at the problems of staffing humanitarian aid programmes. As part of our series looking at governments’ humanitarian policies, HPG’s Adele Harmer looks at Australian government policy. To end, Nicolas de Torrenté of MSF challenges humanitarian organisations to recognise the profound and far-reaching implications for humanitarian action of the war on terrorism.