Issue 33 - Article 1

Chronic vulnerability to food insecurity: an overview from Southern Africa

April 18, 2006
Karen Tibbo, Oxfam-GB Southern Africa, and Scott Drimie, independent researcher

In 2001–2002, Southern Africa experienced its worst food crisis since 1992. Most assessments have understood this crisis to be as much a crisis of livelihoods, or of development in general, as a simple food shock. In the decade leading up to the crisis, increasing vulnerability to the changing political and socio-economic environment was not adequately understood or addressed. This meant that a modest external threat, such as erratic rainfall, was all that was required to trigger widespread suffering. Numerous studies have since revealed the complexity of the crisis, which is now recognised as having both acute and chronic dimensions. In addition, the emphasis of investigation has shifted from a focus on food availability to a broader understanding of risk and vulnerability, including the role of access and entitlements in food insecurity.

In February 2005, food security reports from the USAID-supported Famine Early Warning System Network (FEWSNET), Vulnerability Assessment Committees (VACs) and the Regional Inter-agency Co-ordination Support Office (RIACSO) indicated another acute food crisis, this time triggered by rainfall failure during the 2005 growing season. This is affecting areas of Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia and Zimbabwe. There is a consensus in some countries that what we are seeing is an acute phase of a chronic emergency. The question remains how to respond effectively.

How are we responding to chronic vulnerability?

Thinking around the implications of a chronic emergency has progressed from linear concepts such as the ‘relief to development continuum’. Now there is a realisation that millions of people in Southern Africa are food insecure, even in good years. This shift in thinking is widespread, and there is agreement in the region that the issues can no longer be framed in terms of a ‘classic’ emergency. This shift is captured in strategy and policy documents.

Despite a better understanding of the nature of chronic vulnerability in Southern Africa since 2001, agencies are still struggling with how to intervene given the difficulties poor people face in trying to cope with dynamic shifts in vulnerability. Some agencies have incorporated the lessons of 2001–2002 into their emergency responses during 2005/6; a recognition of the importance of food access has encouraged some agencies to develop cash programming, for example, and there have been successful efforts to integrate emergency programmes into development structures, particularly in terms of planning, staffing and the use of field offices.

However, there is little evidence that a better definition of the problem has translated into more effective work on the ground on the scale required. ‘Food insecurity’ is still being directly translated into ‘food aid needs’, and the response is mainly through emergency mechanisms. For instance, over 80% of the 2002–2003 UN CAP appeal was allocated to food aid, amounting to $500 million (for a million tonnes of food) for the emergency operation. In January 2005, the World Food Programme (WFP) launched a regional Protracted Relief and Recovery Operation (PRRO) for roughly the same amount of food aid, to meet developmental objectives over a two-year period. In 2005–2006, food aid has again accounted for the majority of the response, both to acute needs and beyond. Improvements in information have meant that humanitarian responses in 2005 were timely. However, to a large degree this was due to the fact that the food aid infrastructure was still in place. Agencies say that the emergency response has not actually scaled down since 2003.

Using emergency mechanisms to address chronic food insecurity is problematic for a variety of reasons. One problem is knowing when to intervene; a bigger one is knowing when to pull out. In addition, the methods used to conduct vulnerability assessments are unable to distinguish between households facing a transient problem, and households that are predictably food insecure, year on year, even when rains are plentiful. Further analysis could help here. The scale of the problem is difficult to define, and can be exaggerated. There are also enormous challenges around targeting. The poorest are not necessarily affected by poor rainfall, as their asset base is so low anyway. This would imply that the less poor, who are more likely to have suffered from crop failure/livestock loss, should be the primary recipients of humanitarian aid. However, it is often impossible for community workers to leave out the poorest when resources become available. This problem is compounded by emergency programming in areas of high HIV prevalence.

Why hasn’t changed thinking translated into changes in action?

If the current mode of response to chronic vulnerability is inadequate, why has it not been changed? There are a number of reasons. First, emergency food aid can be a reliable instrument. WFP and many of its partners are highly experienced and have proven that they can get the job done at scale. It is easier to mobilise emergency food aid, which has an established delivery system in many countries, than it is to design and implement other interventions. Thus, there is reluctance to move away from it.

Organisational blockages are a major limiting factor. For most agencies, the dichotomy between ‘humanitarian’ and ‘development’ affects how they operate, where and how they can access funds and the type of staff they are likely to employ. A shift to addressing chronic vulnerability directly challenges this split. Emergency responses in 2005 were designed to avoid acute malnutrition and protect asset bases. However, ‘saving lives’ has also been cited as an objective by some agencies. This is misleading: while it is true that severe acute malnutrition, if not addressed, will result in death, in terms of nutritional indicators the severity of food insecurity in Southern Africa is not as great as in other parts of the continent. However, some agencies need additional leverage to release funds for a situation that does not fit into traditional silos, and an emergency label is used to galvanise action.

For donors, saving starving babies is always going to win out over providing drip-irrigation equipment or building capacity within agricultural extension systems. Not all donors have the technical capacity to engage in the more complex issues around hunger, risk and vulnerability. For national governments, emergency food aid is often seen as a useful political tool, especially around election time. It is also a financial issue: how we view these shocks determines how they are funded (i.e. by short-term funding).

As with donors, governments find humanitarian responses easier than investing in long-term development, which has a poor track record in many parts of Africa. Governments often view responding to shocks as a ‘donor issue’. This raises questions of accountability, and underlines the need to work for more predictable resources to deal with predictable needs. However, government capacity is still weak, and national governments are rarely the target audience for advocacy messages by civil society.

The role of information

A further factor mitigating against change is the fact that we lack a robust evidence base on which to plan new approaches. The reputational risk of doing something different therefore remains too high for most agencies. In Southern Africa, the VACs constitute the main source of information around vulnerability. A recent assessment of the VACs found that they have had a number of positive effects. In each of the countries in which they have been established, they have provided a forum to promote better understanding of vulnerability issues, have encouraged the broad participation of a number of stakeholders, have provided a key information source for the humanitarian assistance community and have opened up space to influence policies related to emergency and poverty responses.

Yet despite some significant successes, the link between information systems and policy remains weak. According to the recent Five-Year Plan, the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Regional VAC is supposed to provide leadership in this area. However, the role of the RVAC is still unclear, and the results have been very mixed. The poor institutional framework for the VACs and the lack of fulltime staff and stable resources mean that they have struggled to engage comprehensively with the issues. Some VAC representatives feel that support will come from a longer-term focus that is more relevant for governments and external agencies. The over-riding emergency focus means that the VACs are only visible during crisis years. SADC member states have pledged to support the VACs, but only South Africa has provided significant budgetary backing to date.

Linking information to better responses The rationale for emphasising improved information systems is that providing objective information will lead to more appropriate responses. Work in this area is slowly gaining momentum. A recent player is the Regional Hunger and Vulnerability Programme (RHVP), a major regional initiative by the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID), which is also receiving support from AusAid for vulnerability assessment work across the region. Better responses to food insecurity are not just a technical issue. There is an array of institutional and agency agendas in Southern Africa. This complicates the task. In this context, as a new programme that seeks improvements in vulnerability assessment in order to inform more appropriate responses to hunger, the RHVP is perceived to have created tensions with other key players.

It is generally recognised, including by national governments, that chronic food insecurity is not being adequately addressed. Recent thinking around social protection is providing an alternative to emergency food aid, particularly in the form of multi-annual safety nets. These are one instrument of social protection, and aim to provide regular transfers of cash and/or food to people facing chronic hunger through long-term financing from government budgets.

The rationale behind safety nets is that the majority of food insecurity in Africa is predictable, meaning that it is there year on year, even without a crisis. A predictable problem requires a predictable response, rather than a short-term emergency one. The key here is to bring national governments to the centre of efforts to tackle hunger, and increase their accountability. Some agencies are sceptical about this emphasis on social protection. For others, social protection is a move away from a failure of relief: humanitarian work saves lives, but it is not preventing livelihoods from being eroded over time. However, it may be more accurate to say that the problem is a failure in the way food aid has been used in place of longer-term investments. Building resilience requires a more predictable response mechanism. So it’s as much a move away from something that is perceived to be failing, as a move towards something more appropriate.

One of the most convincing arguments around multi-annual safety nets is cost-effectiveness for national governments. Currently, governments contribute to emergency appeals, but large food aid operations disrupt the national budget. Finance ministries are often uncomfortable with the distortions that huge relief operations cause. However, they are generally more interested in economic growth than in setting up social assistance programmes for the poorest. Donors are now emphasising the synergies between social protection and economic growth, rather than seeing the two as alternative policy choices. Building resilience to shocks also means enabling people to increase their productivity and engage more actively in the development process. However, this thinking still has not taken root in policy discussions in Southern Africa.

What instruments: the appropriateness of different responses

In addition to the debates around how we respond to chronic vulnerability (through emergency or longer-term mechanisms), there is the question of what kind of instruments (cash, inputs, food) or combination of instruments are used in these different programmes. The debate has largely become ‘cash versus food’, but this misses the point. Cash can be used for different purposes: as a tool of social welfare or as an instrument to alleviate acute suffering in a humanitarian intervention. Likewise, food aid has different objectives.

The key here is that the choice of instrument should be determined by a broader analysis, that incorporates market assessment, and not only by institutional and political factors. One of the current debates is around the role of the UN in cash-based responses. However, the important question is which agency has the comparative advantage to deliver different types of programmes. If NGOs are the implementing partners anyway, we need to carefully consider what added value would be gained by transferring funds through the UN.


There is an acknowledgement that the livelihoods crisis in Southern Africa is raising immense challenges for institutions in the region. There is now a better understanding of the problem, and a growing consensus that things need to be done differently. There is more debate about different instruments and the role of different institutions. However, there is still a lack of understanding and agreement around how to approach chronic vulnerability. The solutions are not just around the corner. Food insecurity is highly political and there will be trade-offs between different kinds of responses. It is as yet unclear how, in the current fast-changing environment, debates around appropriate responses will be translated into a reduction in hunger in Southern Africa.

Within five years, Southern Africa has experienced two major food crises. Given what we know about what needs to be done, we need to take stock and ask how governments, agencies and donors have responded, both in the short term and in terms of how policies are shifting. Although some organisations are further ahead than others, there remains a great deal to be done if we are going to make coherent progress in tackling this recurring problem.

References and further reading

DFID, Growth and Poverty Reduction: The Role of Agriculture, DFID Policy Paper, 2005.

Forum for Food Security in Southern Africa (FFSSA), Achieving Food Security in Southern Africa: Policy Issues and Options, Synthesis Paper, 2004,

K. Lambrechts and S. Barry, Why Is Southern Africa Hungry? The Roots of Southern Africa’s Food Crisis, Christian Aid Policy Briefing, 2003.

OCHA, Humanitarian Strategic Framework for Southern Africa 2005, paper prepared by UN agencies and NGO partners, RIACSO, Johannesburg, 2005.

Regional Hunger and Vulnerability Programme Scoping Study,, 2004.

Regional Vulnerability Assessment Committee, Five-Year Plan, 2005. UN Regional Inter-Agency Co-ordination Support Office, Southern African Humanitarian Crisis updates,

Valid International, A Stitch in Time?, Independent Evaluation of the Disasters Emergency Committee’s Southern Africa Crisis Appeal, July 2002 to June 2003.

S. Wiggins, ‘Regional Issues in Food Insecurity in Southern Africa’, Theme Paper for the Forum for Food Security in Southern Africa, ODI, London, 2003.

Scott Drimieis an independent researcher working on food security issues in Southern Africa. Until May 2005, he was a Senior Research Specialist in the Integrated Rural and Regional Development research programme of the Human Sciences Research Council. Karen Tibbo is Regional Food Security Advisor for Oxfam-GB Southern Africa. Karen is writing in her own capacity, and the views expressed are not necessarily those of Oxfam.


Comments are available for logged in members only.