Towards a Southern African solution
by Donald Mavunduse May 2003

The crisis in Southern Africa calls for urgency and forward thinking. No durable solution is in prospect until the limitations of the current relief response are acknowledged and overcome.

The crisis in Southern Africa is both massive and complex, far outstripping current capacities to assist. The emergency is much greater than a simple food deficit: it includes a health crisis, with millions affected by HIV/AIDS, as well as a crisis of poverty, with over 70% of people in the affected countries classed as poor. Underlying everything are issues of governance and policy – even, in some countries, a crisis of politics itself. These problems are simply too many and too large for current approaches to handle.

The failings of the emergency response

Efforts to deal with the crisis comprehensively are being seriously undermined by limited funds. Over $600 million was required for immediate assistance and relief. However, less than 40% has been received from the international community, and some money may not come at all. Far more is needed to rebuild and improve the living standards of those affected after the emergency phase. In addition, the collective efforts of governments, local and international NGOs and donors in assisting people affected by the crisis have been fragmented, localised and lacking coherence. The bulk of assistance goes on providing immediate relief to those without adequate food. While relieving immediate suffering is of course a humanitarian imperative, it is also generally agreed that this is not enough to prevent another food crisis in the future. Simply providing food to relieve short-term hunger will not do much to address the underlying causes of this crisis.

Political will and policy application

Many long-term solutions to the current crisis have been put forward. Most of them, however, are technical, and many call for complex, comprehensive answers. These proposals include:

  • Causes, Consequences and Policy Lessons from Malawi, a study commissioned by Action Aid and carried out by Stephen Devereux, a Fellow of the UK’s Institute for Development Studies. Devereux recommends the reintroduction of subsidies to boost agricultural production; better management of national grain reserves; and the adoption of pro-poor policies by institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
  • Fighting Famine in Southern Africa: Steps out of the Crisis, a policy paper by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and featured in this issue of Humanitarian Exchange, suggests policy options based on long-term development. IFPRI argues that lasting solutions will be achieved by closely linking immediate relief with recovery and development phases.
  • Many papers have suggested the need for disaster mitigation and risk reduction. The 2002 International Red Cross World Disaster Report, for instance, argues the value of mitigation as a cost-effective and efficient way of dealing with emergencies.

These proposals are credible technical options. However, the real driving force in making them work lies with the people wielding the greatest decision-making power in Southern Africa: the governments of Southern Africa themselves. 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. Southern Africa’s governments and their citizens are the key to reaching a solution to the current crisis, and in preventing another in the future.

If greater public participation in governance is to mean anything for the region’s future food viability, it must aim to ensure:

  • the efficient and accountable use of resources;
  • the allocation of resources by governments in a non-discriminatory way; and
  • the participatory planning and control of resources at decentralised local levels.

In addition, there needs to be a policy commitment to tackling some of the underlying causes of the current crisis. Governments should establish clear goals for reducing the spread of HIV/AIDS and improving the health of those already affected. Given the stigma around the disease and its vulnerability to manipulation for political purposes, it is vital that governments are at the forefront of fighting it, influencing social attitudes to both the disease and the risk factors associated with it, and promoting positive living among those affected and those at risk. HIV/AIDS should be seen as an emergency in its own right, and the current response to the food crisis as an opportunity to scale up the fight against it.

Second, poverty has to be tackled head on. Again, governments are primarily responsible, and should hold themselves accountable. Other players, such as NGOs, civil-society groups and donors, should hold themselves to quality development programmes that have a meaningful and sustainable impact on poor people. The Southern African crisis also reflects the long-known reality that, over the past decade, small farmers have become increasingly incapable of producing enough food. All the players trying to assist should realise that famine will occur again if issues of agricultural production are not addressed adequately within broader poverty-reduction drives.

Hazards and disaster events will occur again regardless of current initiatives. However, if governments act to address issues like health and poverty in addition to efforts to stem immediate food needs, they will be better prepared for the next episode, and their citizens better equipped to resist.

What does this mean for humanitarian practitioners?

The crisis in Southern Africa is severe, and providing food aid a necessary short-term measure. In itself, however, this will not prevent disaster from recurring. There is thus a need within the current emergency response to address the issue of policy and practice, as well as governance and participation. The performance of emergency interventions as well as development should be measured by what changes and benefits ultimately accrue to the disadvantaged and the vulnerable. Any other performance measurement will be secondary.

Humanitarian actors and agencies need to recognise that having credible pro-poor policies is a positive step only if these policies translate into actual benefits to vulnerable and marginalised people. There is a need to strengthen and empower those affected by the emergency. They need to have a voice and be effective in claiming their rights to adequate and appropriate assistance from government and other sources. Working with civil society and involving it in areas such as the formulation of national budgets and budget tracking will counter a well-entrenched myth that governments in Southern Africa cannot allocate more resources towards assisting their people. Finally, there is a need to address the critical issues of poverty and HIV/AIDS, with clear, unambiguous targets and objectives. It is also important to realise and support governments’ leading role in this fight.

The crisis in Southern Africa is so grave, and its attendant problems of poverty, health and governance so deep, that it is difficult to believe that there is a sustainable way out. Admittedly, the prognosis for the region is not good, especially given the current level and type of aid being provided. Yet there are ways, even within current resource constraints, that these burdens may be eased. The levers are the governments and the people of Southern Africa themselves. International efforts during and after this crisis need to recognise this, and develop true partnerships that can harness local and international efforts to address the food situation in the long term. Through the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), African governments have promised more effective governance. This is a positive step, but much more needs to happen if genuine efforts to assist the poor and marginalised are to bear fruit that lasts.

Donald Mavunduse is Emergencies Programme Advisor at Action Aid UK. Previously, he worked for ten years in Southern Africa for a variety of international organisations in development and emergency programmes.

References and further reading

Stephen Devereux, Causes, Consequences and Policy Lessons from Malawi, a report commissioned by Action Aid, 2002.

International Food Policy Research Institute, Fighting Famine in Southern Africa: Steps Out of the Crisis, IFPRI Issue Brief (Washington DC: IFPRI, 2002).

Peter Piot, HIV/AIDS and Emergencies: A Call for Action (Geneva: UNAIDS, 2000).

International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), Investing in the Poor To Prevent Emergencies, Conference on Hunger and Poverty, October 1995.