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The humanitarian crisis in southern Africa

Research reports

This report, ordered by The House of Commons, explores the humanitarian crisis in southern Africa.

In early 2002 southern Africa was gripped by food shortages. These were just one aspect of a complex humanitarian crisis, with  impacts ranging across all sectors, from agriculture, to education and health. The trigger for the crisis was erratic rainfall. The vulnerability of the population meant that a moderate environmental shock was enough to push communities beyond the limits of their normal coping strategies, and over the edge.

The sources of vulnerability in southern Africa are: deep and widespread poverty; HIV/AIDS; and, poor governance and inappropriate policies. Poor governance is nowhere more evident than in Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe would normally be a part of the solution to food shortages in southern Africa: at present, it is a major part of the problem.

In Malawi, the sale of the Strategic Grain Reserve and the allegations of corruption which surround it, illustrated the role that poor governance plays, and exacerbated the food shortages. 

A major international effort has been made to respond to the crisis. The aim is to prevent unnecessary suffering and deaths, and to sow the seeds for sustainable development in the region. It seems that a repeat of the events of early 2002 will be avoided this year. The international humanitarian response was initially clouded by concerns about governments in the region, and has been disrupted by concerns about genetically-modified maize.

But overall, the relief effort, led by the World Food Programme, has been a success.  Short-term humanitarian responses must now be integrated into longer-term development. If rural livelihoods are to be improved, the neglect of agriculture must end. Nothing else has the potential to lift millions of poor rural people out of poverty. If communities are to be protected from future shocks, safety nets and social protection measures must be put in place.

Well-designed public works programmes—providing food, cash, or agricultural inputs for work—and targeted inputs programmes—providing seeds and fertiliser—offer an effective way of ensuring that short term relief contributes to longer-term development.

If communities are to escape from poverty and move towards sustainable development, they must be provided with opportunities; better access to agricultural inputs (seeds, fertiliser, water, land and credit) and assistance as regards agricultural outputs (maize prices, markets, diversification and exports).

Tackling HIV/AIDS must be a priority as regards both short-term and long-term interventions. Food aid must not miss out the millions of AIDS orphans, and must be nutritionally appropriate. Longer-term development strategies must be based on laboursaving agricultural technologies. 

If the countries of southern Africa are to escape the vicious circle of vulnerability, crisis, poverty and HIV/AIDS, governments, donors, NGOs, the private sector and international organisations will have to work together more effectively, and work together regionally.

They must make themselves accountable for their actions, so that they put themselves on the path to increased effectiveness. In this way, the “right to food” may become reality rather than rhetoric. If the lessons of the crisis are learnt and applied, and the international community stays engaged, the crisis of 2001-03 in southern Africa might be remembered for the benefits it produced, as well as for the avoidable suffering it inflicted. 

International Development Committee