Issue 22 - Article 3

Natural disaster, political failure

May 29, 2003
Hisham Khogali

An estimated 14 million people in Southern Africa needed food assistance in 2002-2003. Governments within the region have struggled to respond, while international help has been slow to arrive. What caused the crisis, and how has the international community responded?

The roots of Southern Africa’s food crisis lie in a combination of environmental shocks, chronic poverty, a health crisis and damaging government policies. Over the past two to three years, the region has suffered widespread drought, erratic rainfall and flooding, hitting agricultural production. Prices of the staple crop, maize, have increased, in some cases by as much as 400%, drastically restricting access to food among impoverished populations. Across the region, in Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe, millions of people are vulnerable.

Political failings

Poor accountability and a lack of democratisation have only exacerbated the crisis. In Malawi, for instance, the European Community accuses the government of financial mismanagement and corruption. In Zimbabwe, usually a surplus producer and a crucial supplier in times of food deficit, the controversial land-redistribution policy has hit commercial agricultural production and destabilised the country. Elections there and in Zambia, seen as rigged by many external observers, have generated further political instability, and attracted the hostility of donor states.

Meanwhile, the mismanagement of strategic grain reserves across the region has meant that shortfalls cannot be met internally, and South Africa, previously a source of additional supplies, has been unable to fill the gap. All the affected countries possessed these reserves, but none was adequately stocked. In Malawi, grain stocks were sold immediately before food shortages peaked. According to the Malawian government, the sale was to meet International Monetary Fund (IMF) demands for loan repayments, a claim denied by the IMF.

Screen Shot 2012-11-02 at 3.43.26 PM

The international response

The response of donors to the food crisis has been slow and conditional, despite its severity and despite the presence of well-established early-warning systems in the region. The signs of an impending crisis were certainly there; as early as March 2001, the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) reported that harvest prospects had deteriorated as a result of flooding and unusually dry spells in a number of countries. The World Food Programme (WFP) responded with targeted food distributions, and in early 2002 launched an appeal for $69 million. The Red Cross also launched an appeal in May 2002. NGOs, notably Save the Children-UK, lobbied hard for donor attention, but these warnings went largely unheeded. The gravity of the situation became unmistakable in the wake of the 2002 harvest, when WFP launched an appeal to feed nearly 13m people at risk of starvation. The Red Cross also launched an appeal for $70m, and the international response began in earnest in July 2002. Food donations started to flow through the WFP, mostly from the US. An earlier response by NGOs, the Red Cross, UN and donors may have reduced the required food inputs and protected livelihoods.

Why was the international donor response so slow? Part of the reason was international opposition to policies in the key regional state of Zimbabwe; could aid have been conditioned by a desire to pressure the government of Zimbabwe into policy change, for example over controversial land distribution, apparent attempts to hijack elections and efforts to intimidate opponents? There were also fears for the transparency of assistance, as reports emerged that aid reaching Zimbabwe was being redirected to government supporters. In addition, regional governments themselves were concerned about the distribution of genetically-modified (GM) food. The maize grain provided by the US government is genetically modified and, if planted, could contaminate local species, and possibly cross between plant species. There were also fears over the long-term health implications of GM food. Although there is no evidence of side-effects, research in this area is relatively young and it is impossible to predict the long-term impact. Although only Zambia refuses GM food, other affected countries stipulated that it be milled at source or on entry into the country.

NGO and Red Cross action

Despite the slow donor response, a diverse group of international and local NGOs, as well the UN and the Red Cross, is operating throughout the affected countries. Activities have included targeted food distributions, selective feeding programmes, agricultural programmes and water and sanitation projects, as well as monitoring activities. Through its HIV Home Based Care programme, the Red Cross targeted food distributions to people living with HIV and AIDS, as well as to their household members and orphans. The Red Cross is also undertaking water and sanitation programming and an agricultural inputs programme. The Red Cross’ biggest contribution is logistical support to WFP food operations through a regional transport package, which includes the trucking of food to various NGOs for targeted distribution. Cooperation and coordination between NGOs, as well as with regional governments and the UN, have developed well, particularly in monitoring and assessment of the situation across the region.

Future prospects

Malnutrition rates are now under control in most of the region, with the exception of some areas of Malawi. However, the crisis is far from over. Overall, the prevalence of acute malnutrition is low, but in all affected countries households report low or depleted food stocks, and coping strategies are damaging long-term livelihood security. According to assessments by the Vulnerability and Assessment Committee (VAC) of the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC), which brings together NGOs, the Red Cross and the Red Crescent, regional governments and the UN, the number of people needing assistance has actually increased, to 14m:

The VAC emergency food security assessments confirm the severity of the regional food crisis and provide compelling evidence that urgent action, beyond that of current levels, is required from national Governments, regional bodies, and the international community to avert a humanitarian disaster in the next seven months before the main harvest in April/May 2003.

Southern Africa’s food crisis is not the result simply of widespread drought and unfavourable environmental conditions. Increasing political instability in the region, particularly in Zimbabwe, has contributed to the crisis, as has the HIV pandemic. Donor governments, keen to criticise the lack of accountability and democratic process in a number of affected countries, were slow in helping, and early-warning systems were ineffective in mobilising international concern. Even now, the response may meet the immediate need to save lives, but many livelihoods have been damaged; unless assistance continues beyond the food-deficit period, many people may lose their livelihoods altogether.

The Southern Africa crisis has brought to the fore a number of issues that demand urgent attention from the humanitarian community. Were the region’s governments adequately aware of the impending crisis? Why did long-established early-warning mechanisms fail to solicit a response? Was information provided by the WFP and others trusted by donors, and if not why? Why did local authorities not have the capacity and institutional efficiency to respond in a timely manner? Were delays in the donor response the result of a desire to force the region’s governments into improved accountability and democracy? And if so, did this contradict the humanitarian imperative, and with what effect?

Hisham Khogali is Senior Officer, Food Security, at the IFRC.

References and further reading

Vulnerability Assessment Committee, Regional Emergency Food Security Assessment Report, September 2002. Available at: The VAC website also holds country-specific emergency food-security assessments for Zimbabwe, Malawi, Zambia and Swaziland.

IFRC, ‘Mission Report to Zimbabwe and Zambia, July/August 2002’, available on request from

FAO reports on the food-supply situation and crop prospects in Sub-Saharan Africa are posted on the FAO website at


Comments are available for logged in members only.