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Note: This document is from the archive of the Africa Policy E-Journal, published by the Africa Policy Information Center (APIC) from 1995 to 2001 and by Africa Action from 2001 to 2003. APIC was merged into Africa Action in 2001. Please note that many outdated links in this archived document may not work.

Southern Africa: Food Crisis Southern Africa: Food Crisis
Date distributed (ymd): 020625
Document reposted by Africa Action

Africa Policy Electronic Distribution List: an information service provided by AFRICA ACTION (incorporating the Africa Policy Information Center, The Africa Fund, and the American Committee on Africa). Find more information for action for Africa at

+++++++++++++++++++++Document Profile+++++++++++++++++++++

Region: Southern Africa
Issue Areas: +economy/development+


This posting contains two brief documents on the food crisis in southern Africa: (1) a press release from ActionAID releasing their new report on the famine in Malawi, and (2) an interview with a World Food Program official with an overview of the threat of growing famine later this year.

The first report in particular raises the issues of the factors leading to greater vulnerability to famine in the region than a decade ago, particularly noting the damaging effects of forced liberalization of the agricultural sector and undermining of national and regional food security schemes. Without denying the effects of both natural factors and policies of national governments, the ActionAID report notes the responsibility of "donor" pressure to change agricultural policies as well as the additional burden of AIDS.

These reports follow the early June summit of the Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome, which was conspicuous by the absence of leaders of Western countries. They also follow the May decision by the U.S. Congress to boost subsidies for U.S. farmers by more than $5 billion a year. European and U.S. agricultural subsidies allow agricultural exports from rich countries to be sold far below the cost of production, thus undermining small farmers in Africa and other developing regions.

Other recent sources with background on world trade and agricultural policy include:

Food First on the World Food Summit

NGO/CSO Forum for Food Sovereignty

Foreign Policy in Focus on
U.S. Farm Bill, World Food Summit, and WTO Agriculture Agreement

Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy on
WTO Agriculture Agreement

+++++++++++++++++end profile++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Malawi food crisis report - it was a disaster waiting to happen

ActionAID Press Release, 14 June 2002

For further information contact Jane Moyo, ActionAid London Press Office on +44 (0)20 7561 7614/7633 or +44 (0)7753 973 486

Full report:

Policy brief:

ActionAid today releases a substantive evidence-based report that for the first time traces the causes of Malawi's food crisis. Alarmingly, some of the core contributory factors are still in place.

Malawi is facing the prospect of a second round of famine unless lessons are learned quickly and responsibilities accepted. Yet understanding what has led to the widespread hunger and deaths this year has been clouded by the public trading of blame by the Government of Malawi and the International Monetary Fund.

The ActionAid "State of Disaster" report shows how society in rural Malawi, already highly vulnerable, is breaking down. Incomes have plummeted and life expectancy rates have dropped by 15 years. Rural people no longer have the capacity to cope when harvests are poor, leading to hunger and starvation. Mounting evidence that farming communities are reeling after ten years of increasing poverty and record levels of HIV infection has been ignored.

Findings include:

  • The immediate trigger for the food crisis was localised flooding in February and March 2002 but the underlying reasons were mainly political and economic
  • Rigid and prescriptive IMF and donor-led economic policies and practices compounded government planning, policy and implementation failures
  • There was limited investment in the rural economy, 70 per cent of Malawians live in rural areas
  • Little thought was given by major donors to the impact of economic liberalisation on the lives of poor rural families
  • The Malawian government pushed through the commercialisation of the agricultural sector with inadequate support being given to the most vulnerable.

A series of damaging miscalculations by the Malawian government and donors aggravated long-term policy failures. These were:

  • The strategic grain reserve, Malawi's buffer against famine, was sold off in its entirety
  • Private traders were effectively allowed to profiteer from the sale of the grain reserve, buying maize cheaply and hoarding it until prices rose before reselling it for exorbitant profits
  • Rationing was imposed without any form of identification system being put in place and was therefore open to abuse.

The other key component of the famine was the strain on relations between donors and the Malawian government because of allegations of economic mismanagement and governance failures. This fatally delayed donors' response to the food crisis just as food shortages were beginning to bite.

Sakou Jobe, ActionAid Malawi's Country Director said: "We cannot underestimate the enormous power wielded by international institutions such as the IMF, WTO or even donors such as DFID and USAID. They have massive influence. The government of Malawi has been guided by their policies and conditions of investment. All parties must recognise their shared responsibility for what has gone wrong and work to put it right."

Despite the policy failures and mistakes, disaster might have been averted if there had not been an over-calculation of the root crop harvest in Malawi. It was assumed that potatoes and other tubers such as cassava would act as a substitute for maize, the staple crop. Donors and the government were lulled into a false sense of security and predicted that food availability would be more than adequate. This proved to be wrong.

Sakou Jobe says: "We realise this report will be challenging for all involved. Famine is always about policy failure and Malawi's food crisis is no different. It was a disaster waiting to happen. This report is about getting organisations and governments to accept their responsibilities and take action. Everyone has a right to live free from hunger. We must not loose sight of the fact that millions in southern Africa are still hungry."

Interview With WFP Regional Food Vulnerability Expert

UN Integrated Regional Information Networks

[excerpts; full text of this interview and other IRIN news on the food crisis by country and region available on the IRIN web site.]

June 7, 2002

Close to 13 million people in six countries in Southern Africa are in need of food aid from now through to March next year, the worst humanitarian crisis the region has faced since the 1992 drought.

Nicholas Haan, Regional Programme Advisor of the World Food Programme's (WFP) Vulnerability Analysis and Mapping unit, was WFP's technical coordinator in the inter-agency food assessment missions that detailed the extent of the emergency. He spoke to IRIN on the factors that have tipped the six countries - Zimbabwe, Malawi, Zambia, Lesotho, Swaziland and Mozambique - into crisis.

Q: There is a quantitative difference between the last great Southern African drought in 1992 that affected some 18 million people and the current food situation. But the current crisis has been described as a "complex emergency". What is the qualitative difference between the two emergencies?

A: It is quantitatively different because the number of people who need food this year is not as great as those in 1992. But qualitatively [this year] is very different. 1992 was almost exclusively a drought-related emergency and a very long-term drought at that. This year it's complex. There are political factors - Zimbabwe stands out. The land reform programme has had a very strong effect on production levels. In Malawi, the sale of the strategic grain reserve definitely affected prices last year which affected farmers' ability to purchase food and therefore effects household food security.

So there are these qualitative dimensions, and not to even mention HIV/AIDS. HIV/AIDS is very different this year. There were very low values in 1992, now we are having prevalence rates in adult populations of around 25 percent, in some places even higher. So this has a direct effect on production and direct effects on accessibility.

Many households by December normally depend on purchasing their food. That number is around 80 percent of poor households who depend on purchasing their food from December through March. Without income coming into their households [because of illness due to HIV/AIDS] - that might come from remittances from South Africa, from income from working on a neighbour's farm, from working on estates - without that income, the household cannot afford maize, it cannot afford food. So HIV/AIDS has direct effects. Plus the increased demands on caregivers' time is very critical. And it's particularly women and the elderly caregivers in the household. Because now they have to spend their time not only taking care of other household members, but also the production activities that they normally do.

Q: Perhaps related to HIV/AIDS is also the problem of deep poverty - households in Malawi even in a good year cannot even cover all their needs. What has happened?

A: In terms of production, poor households are not producing the food that they need for the whole year. That's why I mentioned that normal food stocks will take households up until around December and then they start purchasing. The question is whether or not they can afford it at that point. Yes, the macro-economic situation in all six of these countries [identified as facing crisis] is on a downward slide, and that has direct effects on not only the macro economy but trickle down effects on households.

We see it in Malawi very, very clearly, with the average daily labour rate called "ganyu" - it refers to casual labour, a widespread and common means of getting income. That daily wage rate has not changed in five years, it's about 20 kwacha [US 27 cents] per day. But the inflation rate in Malawi has been outstanding [May 2001 it was 30 percent]. So you have this inflation rate, to which all the other prices get adjusted accordingly - fuel transport, maize prices, they're all directly linked. But the casual labour rate hasn't budged - its a precarious situation.

Q: In terms of the interviews you made during the recent crop assessment missions, how did people perceive their situation?

A: It depends on where the household gets their income. Farmers who depend on cash crops for export face very volatile global markets. Tobacco for example. This year the tobacco prices are down significantly, they are at 70 kwacha per kg - it's about half of what it was last year. So that puts them in a very vulnerable position with regards to global market prices.

The household income of 50 percent of Malawians is 15-20 kwacha per day, spread out across the year. And yet maize prices last year were reaching 30 kwacha per kg. A household of five people needs at least two kg, so that's 60 kwacha and you are making around 20 kwacha. But even that's a little misleading because 15-20 kwacha per day, the average daily household income, is spread out across the whole year. When households get cash crops they sell them and spend the money. Come December, come the hungry months - December, January, March - they don't have that money available. Again, what they're depending on at that time is ganyu - casual labour. If the agricultural season is poor, if the planting season is poor, it has direct effects on the current situation because if the planting season is poor, it means the labour opportunities which people are so reliant on are not there. ...

Q: You were saying that things could still go wrong this year which could increase numbers in need, could you elaborate on that?

A: Absolutely. All of these countries have experienced stress years last year, Malawi was more pronounced - but all of them. Zambia did, Zimbabwe has quite a continual crisis, farmers in Swaziland were also harvesting green maize, and all of these situations received a tremendous amount of attention in March/April. But that's too late at that point, because the harvest was happening in April. So the crisis that many people [humanitarian workers] came out to see, if they got there in May, had largely been alleviated by the natural process of having a harvest. The situation we're in right now is a post harvest situation. By far, the majority of people do have some harvest - there were some who were actually devastated to the point they have nothing left - but the majority do have some harvest. The question is how long will those food stocks last? Most of those food stocks will take people through to at least September/October. Therefore, currently we came out of a bad situation, we have a current alleviation of that problem, but we foresee a very severe problem coming up in the future, especially starting around September and even more so in December.

... We, WFP, do not have those resources right now because September needs will be high, and as I noted, many people's food stocks will have run out at that time. So to avert a crisis, resources need to be mobilised now. We're still in time, but any delay, or any changes to the assumptions we have made regarding winter harvesting, regarding government policies or several other factors, then the crisis will be much larger.

This material is being reposted for wider distribution by Africa Action (incorporating the Africa Policy Information Center, The Africa Fund, and the American Committee on Africa). Africa Action's information services provide accessible information and analysis in order to promote U.S. and international policies toward Africa that advance economic, political and social justice and the full spectrum of human rights.

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