Issue 22 - Article 1

Fighting famine in Southern Africa: steps out of the crisis

May 29, 2003
Suresh Babu and Ashwin Bhouraskar

Environmental shocks like drought bring collapse only to systems already weakened by poor policies and governance. To overcome the famine in Southern Africa, the region needs appropriate and effective policies for immediate relief, recovery and sustained development.

To mitigate the present famine in Southern Africa and to prevent others in the future, governments in the region will have to adopt the wellbeing of their people as their central goal. If governments allow wars, corruption and poor policies to continue, actions to mitigate and prevent famines will fail. Policies for mitigating famine lie on a spectrum ranging from immediate relief to recovery to initiating development. When deciding which mitigation policies to adopt, policymakers must consider two questions: what interventions should be implemented?; and when will their implementation be most effective? This article describes the policy approaches that the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI)’s research in Africa has shown to be effective over the past several decades.

Relief: food and health

In the first instance, governments and aid agencies must minimise the mortality, dislocation and destitution caused by the famine. Not all areas are equally affected; the priority must be to reach the most affected first, and to do so as quickly as possible. In Lesotho, for instance, mountainous and difficult-to-reach areas have been hardest hit, in Mozambique shortages are most acute in the south and centre, and in Zimbabwe the south, west and extreme north have suffered most. A national famine-mitigation strategy can be more effective and cost-effective if it targets food aid to areas where shortages are most severe, using other programmes to address the threat of hunger elsewhere. Criteria for ranking the severity of the situation by district might include crop-production records, emigration numbers, anthropometric measures of nutritional status and reported mortality rates.

Food should be distributed to people where they live; extreme hunger may prevent households from reaching central aid outlets, food camps uproot people and undermine household stability and poor sanitation and overcrowding heighten the risk of disease. Camps may also expose the most vulnerable to exploitation by more powerful inhabitants, and inadequate management and ineffective operations can leave the neediest without assistance.

Households differ in size, wealth, composition and coping capacity. If all households in an area require assistance, aid administrators may respond by distributing food aid evenly. However, this will penalise large families and those that have no other means of coping. It is crucial that aid administrators ensure that the poorest households receive what they need to survive. Distribution should be controlled by standardised, formal guidelines to minimise discrimination, for instance against households headed by women or the elderly, or households of low status or minority ethnicity. Aid organisations cannot rely on criteria such as the judgement of village leaders or project administrators, but should establish transparent distribution rules – and be seen to enforce them.

There is also a need to invest in health services in addition to food relief. Many of the deaths that occur during famine are due not to starvation but to disease. Under-nutrition makes people more susceptible, and existing health services are often unable to take on the added burden. It is therefore imperative that governments maintain or increase public investment in health services during famine, including childcare, nutrition, sanitation and clean water, and HIV/AIDS.

To guarantee that the needs of the most severely-affected households are being met, countries must monitor and evaluate famine-mitigation schemes. Measures should be evaluated for their private and social cost-effectiveness and for their efficiency in making food available. Assessing the performance of interventions during famine can be difficult, especially during the initial crisis stages, but even estimates can be helpful.

Recovery: vulnerability, employment and partnership

As a first step in recovery, famine vulnerability in all areas needs to be assessed. Vulnerability mapping can help determine what kinds of relief and recovery interventions are needed to move out of famine. Useful indicators include levels of food intake, average income level and income range, food sources, coping capacities, links to markets, assets and access to water. It is also important to know which households are headed by females or the elderly, and which have members with AIDS.

Implementing public-works programmes would offer short-term income, provide risk insurance and create assets by developing or improving public goods. The focus of any intervention in this area would depend on the health of the households participating, their coping capacity and the level of food shortage. During the initial crisis stage of a famine, a public-works programme may disregard asset-generation, but once some security has been achieved, thought should be given to how the scheme can create outputs that promote food security and prevent famine. Where public-works programmes exist, they should be expanded. In Zimbabwe, where such a programme helped prevent a famine in 1991, this should be scaled up. Labour-intensive employment schemes require extensive administrative capacity if they are to contribute effectively to a nation’s recovery efforts. If such capacity is not present, other schemes may be more suitable.

During the early recovery stages, when food shortages still exist, food may be too expensive for the poor, and the cash wages offered by public works programmes may be insufficient. In certain regions of Southern Africa, where prices are high, food-for-work schemes would be an appropriate intervention. Such schemes would also be suitable in areas with poor infrastructure, or far from markets. Cash wages, on the other hand, are most appropriate in urban areas where food is available but incomes have declined, and in rural areas where food markets are functioning well.

Any public works scheme should target poor households. This means that, as with food aid, public works should employ standardised and formal criteria to target those suffering most. Programmes can also reach more poor people if wages are set relatively low, or the food supplied is limited. To distribute the benefits across poor households, administrators could set minimum quotas for women or limit the number of participants per household. For destitute households or households without, for instance, an adult who can go out to work, programmes such as free food aid are required.

Although initial recovery from famine in the first instance requires government involvement, the private sector may have a useful role to play. Agents in the commercial agriculture sector, such as estates in Malawi or commercial farms in Zambia or Zimbabwe, could be encouraged to employ poor rural people. If food prices are high, these private agents could purchase staple grains from the public sector and provide them as wages for work. Greater private-sector participation in supplying and distributing food could help alleviate local food shortages and lower prices. Although poor infrastructure may prevent food being transported between regions, availability within regions could be improved. Increasing private-sector involvement will require developing better information systems on prices and markets. Government food marketing systems, such as Malawi’s ADMARC, could arrange for private sellers to supply government-purchased grain in areas not served by the public system.

Development: technologies, policies and institutions

Southern Africa’s vulnerability to famine and food shortage is in part a result of low agricultural productivity. Providing small farmers with basic agricultural inputs, such as fertilisers, seeds or equipment, can help increase production. The region’s governments could distribute free ‘starter packs’ of seeds, legumes and fertilisers to all farmers, as Malawi did in 1998–99. Such a programme should be expanded in Malawi and introduced in the other countries in the region, especially Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Any agricultural technologies that are introduced must be appropriate, taking account of the season, the prevailing conditions, existing farming practices and household knowledge, skills and labour. New technologies or assets should be easy to use or require little training, and need little maintenance, especially if they are provided during the more difficult periods of a famine. Transfer schemes should also be flexible in the face of temporary obstacles, such as unfavourable weather.

If small farmers believe that growing staple food crops for the coming year will be risky and that commercial crops will bring higher incomes, they may not plant staples. If this happens, food shortages will continue in the following year. Governments should implement policies that provide an incentive for small farmers to grow staple crops, but which do not place an undue financial burden on the public sector.

Institutions should also be developed to improve farmers’ access to, and use of, new technologies and assets. Strengthening private markets for agricultural inputs and technologies would help to meet demand, reduce the administrative responsibility of the public sector and create the basis for long-term agricultural development. Where informal and inexpensive borrowing does not exist, governments should establish formal, affordable credit programmes for the rural poor. Such credit allows poor households to purchase agricultural inputs, to buy food during periods of shortage, or to replenish assets such as livestock, which farmers are often forced to sell during famine (livestock sales have been frequent in Malawi, Mozambique and Zambia). Finally, governments must improve agricultural-extension systems oriented to small farmers so that technological and credit inputs are used as productively as possible.

The table opposite presents the policy options suggested here for each of the mitigation phases: relief, recovery and initiating development.

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Policy issues and long-term food security

Although the primary goal in a famine situation must be to get food to people as soon as possible, attention should also be given to how relief and short-term measures can reduce future vulnerability. Relief, recovery and development projects must be combined and sequenced in mutually-reinforcing ways. No single type of intervention will itself achieve relief, recovery or the initiation of development. At the same time, no single agency can hope to achieve an effective outcome alone. Governments, NGOs, the private sector and donors must strengthen their cooperation. Each of these actors has different capacities, and it is important to draw upon and integrate all of them in plans for mitigation and long-term development. Countries should also improve coordination among their own public agencies.

The combination and sequence of interventions required for a country will depend on its circumstances. The figure below shows where various interventions fall on the spectrum of relief to development initiation. It shows that the more immediate the effect of an intervention, the smaller its magnitude, and the less sustainable the intervention over time.

Famines signal the failure of institutions, organisations and policies. While various programmes can minimise the impact of famines and lay the groundwork for future development, policies for famine prevention and long-term food security are imperative. Such policies must encourage agricultural growth, particularly among small farmers; infrastructure development; environmental rehabilitation; and more effective markets. Well-developed famine early-warning systems and the proper management of buffer grain stocks are needed. Countries must develop the capacity to design and implement appropriate food policies and programmes at all levels.

Long-term food security depends on sound governance. Without responsible governance, transparency and accountability, investment in growth, development and food security is likely to have little impact. Governments in Southern Africa must ensure food security and protection from famine regardless of the political and social changes that a country undergoes. Governments must ensure that the poor and vulnerable can take an active part in determining their own lives and their countries’ political future. If governments allow wars, civil unrest, corruption and poor policies to continue, their people will remain vulnerable to famines.

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Suresh Babu ( and Ashwin Bhouraskar ( are Senior Research Fellow and Senior Research Assistant respectively in the Communications Division at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), Washington DC. IFPRI’s website is at: This article first appeared as an IFPRI Issue Brief.

References and further reading

Joachim von Braun, A Policy Agenda for Famine Prevention in Africa (Washington DC: IFPRI, 1991).

Joachim von Braun, Tesfaye Teklu and Patrick Webb, Famine in Africa: Causes, Responses and Prevention (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press for IFPRI, 1998).

Tesfaye Teklu, Employment Programs for Food Security in Sub-Saharan Africa, 2020 Vision Brief 28 (Washington DC: IFPRI, 1995).


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