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Famine spreads across Africa

With 38 million facing starvation, “business as usual will not do”

** Africa Renewal’s Famine in the Horn of Africa 2011
special feature, including the latest news reports and analysis, can be found here.**
Child sitting amidst sacks of relief grain in LesothoChild sitting amidst sacks of relief grain in Lesotho: Emergency aid is vital, but “just shipping in food is not enough,” says UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan: Poverty and other causes of famine must also be addressed.
Photograph: WFP / R. Lee

On a scale not seen in Africa in nearly two decades, famine is once again stalking the continent. According to estimates by the UN's World Food Programme (WFP), as many as 38 million Africans are living under the threat of starvation, and many will succumb if emergency relief does not reach them in time. As of mid-2002, famine conditions were concentrated mainly in Southern Africa, but by the end of the year they had emerged just as severely in the Horn of Africa, and on a lesser scale in several countries in West and Central Africa (see map).

"This is an unprecedented crisis, which calls for an unprecedented response," WFP Executive Director James Morris warned the UN Security Council on 3 December, during a session devoted to considering Africa's food crisis as a threat to peace and security. "The magnitude of the disaster unfolding in Africa has not been fully grasped by the international community.... An exceptional effort is urgently needed if a major catastrophe is to be averted. Business as usual will not do."

Mr. Morris and other participants in the Security Council debate pointed to a variety of factors contributing to the current crisis:

  • drought and other difficult weather conditions in many of the affected countries, bringing low harvests and driving up the price of food
  • the debilitating impact of HIV/AIDS, which leaves those infected less able to stave off the ravages of hunger and weakens local farming systems by killing off millions of Africa's most productive farmers
  • armed conflict or political strife, as in Côte d'Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan and Zimbabwe, and the difficulties confronting countries only recently emerging from conflict, including Angola, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Sierra Leone
  • inadequate economic policies, especially in agriculture, which in many affected countries have brought too little investment in farming inputs, rural infrastructure or essential social services — problems compounded by the poor prices African farm exports fetch on the world market.

For relief organizations, the most immediate challenge is mobilizing enough food, medical care and other assistance to prevent massive loss of life in the famine-stricken countries. This will not be easy, and pledges have been lagging well behind needs. Yet, as WFP Deputy Executive Director Jean-Jacques Graisse emphasized on 16 December, during the launch of an international "Africa Hunger Alert" campaign, "Progress is possible, if the political will is there."

The underlying factors contributing to Africa's recurrent cycles of famine also highlight the need for greater attention to long-term strategies to promote development and peace. "Just shipping in food is not enough," UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan stated in a 9 December address at New York's Columbia University that focused on women, AIDS and the Southern African famine.

Drought and infection

In the seven most severely affected countries of Southern Africa, nearly 16 million people are in urgent need of food aid. Drought is the most immediate reason. Earlier hopes that sufficient rain would fall in time for the 2002/03 planting season, after poor harvests in early 2002, have now been dashed.

According to the Famine Early Warning Systems (FEWS) Network of the US Agency for International Development, important grain-producing areas of South Africa, Zimbabwe and Mozambique experienced "substantially inhibited" rainfall during the last months of 2002. Although South Africa itself is not threatened by famine, the UN regional office in Johannesburg noted that inadequate rain for the country's maize, wheat, sunflower, sorghum and soya crops will have a serious impact beyond its borders, since it is the main food exporter to the rest of the region.

In his 9 December address, Mr. Annan noted that most of the Southern African countries now hit by drought are also battling serious AIDS epidemics. "This is no coincidence: AIDS and famine are directly linked." One way they are linked, he pointed out, is through the role of Africa's women, who provide most agricultural labour and have long been at the centre of communities' efforts to adapt to famine conditions. Now, however, "as AIDS is eroding the strength of Africa's women, it is eroding the skills, experience and networks that kept their families and communities going."

Therefore, Mr. Annan stated, the international community "will have to combine food assistance and new approaches to farming with treatment and prevention of HIV/AIDS." Among other things, this will require integrating HIV and famine early-warning and analysis systems, the introduction of new agricultural techniques appropriate to depleted workforces, renewed efforts to wipe out the stigma of HIV, and innovative and large-scale efforts to care for and support the most vulnerable, especially orphans and other young people in AIDS-stricken communities. "Above all," Mr. Annan said, "this new international effort must put women at the centre of our strategy to fight AIDS."

'Zero tolerance'

Political strife has further complicated the situation. In Southern Africa, Zimbabwe accounts for the greatest number of people affected, 6.7 million, due to a staggering cereal deficit of 1.5 mn tonnes. Although drought has been the main cause of Zimbabwe's poor harvests, analysts have also pointed to the impact of political tensions and the government's controversial land reform policies. After members of Zimbabwe's ruling party seized some WFP food stocks in October for distribution to party supporters, Mr. Annan reaffirmed the UN's "zero tolerance" policy against distributing food on the basis of political affiliation.

In Angola, the signing of a peace agreement in April 2002 has brought a dramatic decline in that country's long civil war. Ironically, however, this has led to an increase in the amount of food and other relief assistance required, since hundreds of thousands of Angolans previously beyond the reach of relief agencies can now be assisted. At the beginning of 2002, the WFP was feeding about 1 million Angolans, a number that climbed to 1.8 million by early December. By the turn of the year, an additional 100,000 Angolan refugees were expected to begin returning home from Zambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The WFP warns that relief pledges have not kept pace with Angola's mounting requirements. In October, the agency appealed for $241 mn to help feed about 1.5 million beneficiaries at that time. As of late December, only about a third of the amount had been pledged. With no further pledges, the food in the WFP's pipeline will run out by March. And by that point, the number of Angolans needing food aid could well climb to between 2.1 and 2.4 million.

'Poverty is at the root'

Serious famine conditions have also developed in the Horn of Africa, principally Ethiopia and Eritrea, just two years after the end of a devastating war between the two countries. The UN, Ethiopian government, relief agencies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), after assessing the full impact of Ethiopia's inadequate and erratic rainfall, estimate that some 11.3 million people require more than 1.4 mn tonnes of food aid through mid-2003, with another 3 million in need of close monitoring (out of a total population of 67 million). A joint UN-Ethiopian appeal, issued on 7 December, warned that the crisis could reach the magnitude of Ethiopia's 1984/85 famine, which claimed around 1 million lives.

A subsequent FEWS assessment noted that conditions may actually be worse than in Ethiopia's last major famine. Some 3-5 million poor rural Ethiopians are chronically unable to feed themselves, even in good years. Many others have very low household grain stocks, following previous poor harvests. As a result, many more people now need food aid than in 1984/85, when 8 million required relief. As elsewhere in Africa, notes the FEWS report, the high prevalence of HIV/AIDS is increasing destitution, lowering labour productivity and eroding traditional coping mechanisms.

Food distribution in Ethiopia.Food distribution in Ethiopia.
Photograph: WFP / Wagdi Othman

Ethiopia's high external debt of around $6 bn also hampers commercial food imports, requiring annual debt servicing payments of more than $160 mn. In addition, private commercial creditors are demanding some $500 mn from Ethiopia, much of it for businesses nationalized under the previous military regime. "Whether these claims are legally right or wrong, Ethiopia can't afford to pay," argues Mr. Justin Forsyth, head of policy for Oxfam, which has joined with other non-governmental organizations to press for greater debt relief to help the country through its emergency.

On top of these problems, the UN-Ethiopia appeal observed that "a drop in the international price of Ethiopia's main cash crop — coffee — has reduced the government's ability to provide additional cash resources to the crisis."

Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, while announcing the joint emergency appeal, emphasized the importance of tackling such fundamental deficiencies "not after the emergency has passed, but in conjunction with addressing the emergency. We need to develop strategies to fight poverty, which is at the root of the problem."

'Stark reality' in Eritrea

In neighbouring Eritrea, an estimated 1 million people need emergency food aid, nearly a third of its total population of 3.3 million. Again, the most immediate factor is a severe, prolonged drought, the worst since the country gained its independence from Ethiopia in 1993. There has been a near-total crop failure in Barentu, which normally produces about 80 per cent of the country's sorghum, Eritrea's staple cereal. WFP officials in Asmara, the Eritrean capital, report that child malnutrition and school dropout rates are increasing, and that in some districts up to one-fifth of the livestock has already died.

In October, UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Kenzo Oshima toured camps for internally displaced people who cannot return home because their land has been mined or their homes were destroyed during Eritrea's recent war with Ethiopia. "Right now, Eritreans need to commit many of their resources to coping with the residual effects of war, but can't because of the drought." Therefore, he said, food aid must be complemented by programmes for post-war reconstruction, the safe return of refugees and internally displaced people, the removal of landmines and poverty reduction. "If issues like these are not addressed, we may well find ourselves with a similar emergency on our hands in a few years," Mr. Oshima warned.

In November, the UN issued a $163 mn relief and rehabilitation appeal for Eritrea, to cover the country's projected needs in 2003. Some $56 mn of that amount would be earmarked for repatriation, landmine removal, shelter, health, education, water, HIV/AIDS and other programmes. Fulfilling those needs may be an uphill struggle, however. As of late December, only a bare $9 mn had been pledged towards the request for $105 mn in food aid — usually the portion of an appeal that donors are most willing to support.

"The prospect of thousands starving is a stark reality," commented Mr. Patrick Buckley, the WFP's representative in Asmara. "Ships carrying food aid from abroad take months to arrive — considering the magnitude of the crisis at hand, each day is critical."

War, and more war

Conflict has been a major factor in a number of Africa's other emergencies. In neighbouring Sudan, two decades of civil war have left some 2.9 million Sudanese dependent on food aid. If an October 2002 agreement between the government and the main southern rebel group leads to a cease-fire, then a "new chapter" could open up for humanitarian assistance in Sudan, says Mr. Oshima, by making it possible for relief agencies to reach previously inaccessible groups of people. This, in turn, will raise aid requirements further.

In Central Africa, where drought generally has not been a factor, large groups of refugees or internally displaced people also need relief aid, including in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda and Congo Republic.

In West Africa, there are two clusters of countries afflicted by famine, for distinctly different reasons. Five countries in the arid Sahel zone (Cape Verde, Gambia, Mali, Mauritania and Senegal) have a combined total of more than half a million people suffering from the effects of drought. The WFP estimates that another 791,000, mainly refugees and internally displaced people, require emergency food aid in four countries along the southwestern coast that have been mired in conflict: Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea and Côte d'Ivoire.

This, however, may underestimate the full impact of the Ivorian crisis, which erupted suddenly and massively into virtual civil war in September. According to an interagency "flash appeal" issued by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in late November, there may be as many as 1.5 million internally displaced people in Côte d'Ivoire, plus another 1.2 million "war affected" Ivorians. These figures do not count foreign residents (mainly from Burkina Faso and Mali) who had to be evacuated back home or refugees who had previously fled to Côte d'Ivoire because of conflicts in their own countries (mainly Liberia and Sierra Leone). If all categories of people affected by conflict in Côte d'Ivoire and its neighbours are included, OCHA estimates that the total could well surpass 4 million, although not everyone would require international food aid.

WFP Executive Director James Morris visiting famine-stricken Southern Africa.WFP Executive Director James Morris visiting famine-stricken Southern Africa.
Photograph: WFP / Wagdi Othman

Mobilizing opinion

The escalation of emergency relief needs in Africa comes at a time of increasing difficulty in securing the necessary funds and food aid. The WFP's director, Mr. Morris, notes that in the 1980s the agency was able to devote three-quarters of its operations to long-term agricultural development programmes. But as donors pulled back from financing such activities — and the number of conflicts in Africa proliferated — the emphasis shifted largely to emergency relief, which now accounts for about 80 per cent of the WFP's budget.

Yet, Mr. Morris adds, funding for such relief operations has itself been declining. Out of a total budget of $1.4 bn for the agency's activities in Africa over the next year, only about half was pledged as of early December. By the end of the month, new donations from Japan, Germany, Canada and the African Development Bank brought the response to the agency's Southern Africa appeal (excluding Angola) to $317 mn, but this was still a third short of the region's total requirement through March 2003.

With the goal of stimulating greater international solidarity with Africa, the WFP has been working with other relief agencies and NGOs to highlight the continent's critical food situation. In early December, the WFP, US Agency for International Development and 15 US humanitarian relief organizations met in Baltimore. They launched a global campaign to help the millions of Africans today facing famine. "We appeal to governments, citizens' groups, private voluntary organizations, religious institutions and individual citizens to recognize the enormity of the crisis confronting Africa and to join in a massive and urgent response."

The WFP's "Africa Hunger Alert," launched on 16 December, is only part of that campaign. A concert, dedicated to the African famine and attended by 1,200 people, was held in Tokyo on 9 December. Colleges and secondary and primary schools in Ontario, Canada, the US state of Montana and other locations have organized vigils, fasts and similar actions to generate support for Africa. Lobbying efforts have been launched in Hong Kong to press local governments to contribute to famine relief.

At the moment, these are isolated expressions of concern, notes the WFP's Mr. Graisse. But he expects them to intensify and spread as the scale of the African crisis becomes more apparent. "If we are to avert starvation in Africa, ordinary citizens have an important role to play," says Mr. Graisse. "It's critical they join the campaign and urge their governments to address the needs of the hungry now before it is too late."

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