Tackling food emergencies in Africa (id21)

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Tackling food emergencies in Africa

The average number of food emergencies in Africa has almost tripled since the 1980s. Today, approximately one third of people in sub-Saharan Africa are undernourished. Although the money spent on short-term food aid has increased, aid for increasing agricultural production – essential for long-term food security – has decreased. A report from Oxfam, an international non-governmental organisation, found that many problems remain unresolved since their first campaign to find solutions to food crises in 1960. People are extraordinarily resourceful during acute food crises. However, when local survival strategies are exhausted, and when national governments are unwilling or unable to act, international humanitarian assistance becomes vital.

A key problem is that the amount and speed of international responses to food crises often depends more on media coverage or political profile than need. For example, massive media coverage helped ensure a strong international response to the Asian tsunami in 2005, which met the needs of around 2 million people. This appeal raised approximately half the amount of money that was raised for all of the world’s emergencies in 2003. Meanwhile, 16 million people remain at immediate risk in neglected and under funded crises in sub-Saharan Africa. Poor emergency warning systems and government failures to respond to warnings can also contribute to late or inadequate aid.

Another problem is that food aid remains the dominant response to food crises, even though the underlying cause of hunger is often people’s inability to buy food, rather than an absolute physical shortage. Also, much food aid is imported from donor countries, even when it is available locally. It can take up to five months to arrive, cost up to 50 percent more than food purchased locally and be nutritionally limited and culturally inappropriate.

Although providing food in emergencies often saves lives, short-term responses to emergencies do not address the root causes of hunger:

  • Poverty is often the underlying problem, made worse by government corruption and discrimination against marginalised groups, such as pastoralists and women. It is also exacerbated by the unfair trade and debt policies of rich country governments.
  • There is insufficient investment in agricultural development and rural areas, and the state’s capacity to intervene in food markets has been reduced by donor aid polices.
  • Conflict, HIV and AIDS and climate change are also major causes of hunger.

African governments, donors, the African Union and the New Partnership for African Development have all committed to reducing hunger. They must now act on these promises. Appropriate policies should be based on consultation between governments, civil society and donors. Although there are no ‘blue-prints’ for success, the researchers suggest focusing on:

  • Emergency aid: early warning systems should not only consider food availability, but factors such as the ability to buy food and differences between livelihood groups. Giving poor people money to buy food locally is often better than giving food from abroad. Emergency programmes should also support livelihoods and rural development programmes.
  • Long term development: donors and governments should adopt rural policies that prioritise smallholders, pastoralists and women producers, and increase investment in rural development programmes. Government interventions in markets are necessary for achieving food security, but the quality of interventions must improve greatly.
  • Other factors: much more must be done to tackle conflict, HIV/AIDS and climate change.

‘Causing Hunger: an overview of the food crisis in Africa’, Oxfam Briefing Paper, Oxfam International: UK, by Ruth Mayne with Alex Renton, Michael Bailey, Nicki Bennett, Emma Naylor, Matthew Snell, Chris Leather, Silke Pietzsch, Ann Witteveen and Mark Fried, 2006 (PDF) Full document.
Funded by: Oxfam

id21 Research Highlight: 15 January 2007

Further Information:
Michael Bailey
Oxfam House
274 Banbury Road
Oxford, OX2 7DZ

Tel: +44 (0) 1865 312279
Contact the contributor: mbailey@oxfam.org.uk


Oxfam International Advocacy Office
1100 15th St., NW, Ste. 600
Washington, DC 20005

Tel: +1 202 496 1170
Fax: +1 202 496 0128
Contact the contributor: advocacy@oxfaminternational.org

Other related links:
id21 insights 61 – ‘Achieving food security: what next for sub-Saharan Africa?’

‘Assessing emergency food needs in Ethiopia’

‘Food aid that supports development: searching for appropriate policies’

‘Is cash the best way to assist poor and vulnerable people?’

‘Is food aid effective?’


Author: Willem Van Cotthem

Honorary Professor of Botany, University of Ghent (Belgium). Scientific Consultant for Desertification and Sustainable Development.

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