Southern Africa: Evolution of a Crisis - A Save the Children UK perspective

from Save the Children
Published on 30 Sep 2002

Southern Africa is in the throes of an acute humanitarian crisis that is having countrywide impacts in Angola, Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe, as well as affecting significant populations in Lesotho, Mozambique and Swaziland. It is estimated that, across the entire region, 7.5 million (plus a further 1.9 million in Angola) people already require immediate food assistance; a figure that will rise to 16.3 million over the January -March 2003 period. Of those in need, at least 60% are under the age of 18 years.

Save the Children UK (SC UK) were the first agency to raise the spectre of an impending crisis in October 2001 and have been at the forefront of efforts to mobilise a response since then. This document details the build up to the crisis and key moments in responding to it by the international humanitarian community. This has been a slow onset emergency, and the potential has existed for a major disaster to be averted through early and pre-emptive interventions. Largely using Malawi and Zimbabwe as case studies, it looks at the roles of the different actors and how successfully they fulfilled their responsibilities in responding to the situation.

CHRONOLOGY OF EVENTS - with special reference to Malawi and Zimbabwe

Southern Africa has suffered from erratic weather over the past two seasons and so many poorer farmers had already exhausted their coping strategies. The causes of the current crisis in southern Africa have been well documented elsewhere1. In addition to adverse weather conditions, with drought, erratic rains, floods and tornadoes over successive years causing falls in production, other underlying factors have helped to drastically destabilise food security. These include political instability in Zimbabwe and a fragile peace in Angola, poor macro-economic performance in all countries in the region, inappropriate government policies, and the HIV/AIDS pandemic.

Annex 1 details the significant events both for Save the Children UK and the wider community. This is further explained and expanded on here.

Save the Children UK has developed the Household Economy Approach (HEA) methodology as a means of assessing both the physical availability and access to food by communities. This method has been widely adopted amongst food security practitioners and donors. A training session in HEA was conducted in Malawi in October 2001, by Save the Children. This was carried out in several Food Economy Zones that overlapped with those districts where SC UK is operational; Mchinji and Salima. The results were surprising, if not alarming. The results suggested that even in Mchinji, which is traditionally a bread basket area, the population was facing the potential for a significant food shortfall well before the next harvest in March 2003. HEA is a powerful predictive tool but because the results were derived from a training exercise, with staff new to the technique, there were concerns that the results may not be entirely reliable. A validation of the data, using experienced staff, showed the initial findings to be correct. These results were largely unexpected and showed that populations were experiencing degrees of vulnerability four months earlier than normal.

Save the Children felt so concerned about the implications of these findings that they hosted a donor meeting in Lilongwe in November 2001, not only to alert interested parties but to try and instigate a response strategy. The warning was not accepted and many, particularly the EU, maintained that the situation was less serious than we were predicting. At that time, FEWSnet were predicting some increased vulnerability but suggested that whilst maize was in short supply, food was not if root crops were taken into consideration. Root crop productivity is extremely difficult to predict and, subsequently, the estimates were shown to be seriously inflated.

To support the SC UK argument, nutrition surveys were carried out in December 2001. These showed global nutrition rates of 11.8 and 9.3% in Mchinji and Salima respectively. In itself, these figures did not suggest a crisis. However, when taken together with the HEA data and in considering the time of year (ie at least 3 months before harvest), they were very serious indeed. Again the response from donors was unenthusiastic. By comparison, an HEA survey in Zimbabwe (May 2001) with no supporting nutritional data was able to attract donor support from DFID for a food intervention over the September 01 - April 02 period. This was an unusual case in that it was designed specifically to support livelihoods rather than combat hunger per se. This differentiated response did show apparent inconsistencies in the DFID approach to the crisis in each country.

Intensive lobbying of donors and the international community commenced to support a wide-scale intervention in Malawi. Anecdotal evidence suggested strongly that the situation was deteriorating rapidly, a situation compounded by a massive increase in maize prices of 400%. To quantify the impact on the population, a follow-up nutrition survey was conducted in late February. Global malnutrition rates had increased to 12.5% in Mchinji and to 19% in Salima. That this increase had taken place within only 10 weeks was indicative of the seriousness of the situation and a vindication of the earlier Save the Children position.

By February it became clear that the food shortage was a regional issue and not just restricted to individual countries. FAO issued a Special Alert warning of 4 million Africans being at risk, and highlighted Malawi, Zimbabwe and Zambia as being the most affected.

However, national governments continued to be slow to admit that the problems were serious. In fact, Malawi did not declare a State of Emergency until the 27 February and Zimbabwe not until the 26 April.

Within the UK, international NGOs were also, independently, carrying out investigations into the extent of the problem in their operational areas. There was no coordination amongst agencies and so, in order to get a wider and common understanding, Save the Children called a coordination meeting in early April to allow all active NGOs to share information and develop a common position on the scale and needs of the crisis. This led to the development of a joint Position paper that, via the British Overseas Agencies Group (BOAG) mechanism went to the UK Secretary of State for International Development.

The prospect of a massive food shortage was now becoming more widely accepted. DFID agreed to fund a one-month SC UK food aid intervention in Mchinji - the first donor to respond to the food situation. WFP and FAO were also increasingly concerned and, at the Inter-Agency Standing Committee Policy Working Group meeting in March, invited Save the Children to present on the regional food situation. A direct result of this meeting, at the behest of WFP, was the formation of a working group tasked with coordinating the Crop and Food Supply Assessment missions to the region but with a wider remit. In conjunction with the normal supply side information that is collected and analysed, there was the explicit requirement to collect data on access to food and vulnerability issues. Save the Children were invited to participate in these missions in both Malawi and Zimbabwe. The missions, in the seven countries (Angola, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe) took place over April and May 2002 and were reported back to a multi-agency meeting on the 6-7 June.

The meeting established agreed figures for the needs of the region and indicative figures of the populations in need, as a function of three phases between June 2002 and April 2003.

The situation was described as a "crisis of enormous dimensions". It was agreed that over 12 million people in six countries would require assistance in response to the total cereal shortfall of 4 million tonnes. Of this 1.2 million tonnes would be supplied as emergency food aid through until March 2003.

Coincident with these developments was the death of Savimbi in Angola and the resultant cease-fire agreement on 4th April. This opened up huge areas of hitherto inaccessible countryside and to the resident population. Almost overnight the number of beneficiaries requiring humanitarian aid mushroomed. OCHA figures suggest more than 3 million people will require humanitarian assistance of which 1.9million people will require food aid.

Table 1 below shows the key elements of the proposed response over the 9 months until April 2003.

Within SADC as a whole, maize production stood at 16.3 million MT for the 2001/02 season. Whilst this represents only a 7% drop compared to the average over the past five years, it masks significant country level declines. These included Zimbabwe (71% down), Zambia (-35%), Malawi (-18%), Swaziland (-22%), and Lesotho (-21%). The harvest in April / May 2002 offered, at best, only temporary respite. Prior to harvest, acute food shortages were being reported in both rural and urban areas and, even where food was available, prices had risen dramatically. The price of maize increased by up to 300% in Zimbabwe and Zambia, and above 400% in Malawi and, as a result, large numbers of people in these countries have had their access to food severely undermined eg food may be available, but is too expensive to purchase. The expectation is that these conditions will be repeated again, though even more acutely from August 2002, if food is not brought rapidly into the affected countries.

Table 1. Predicted cereal shortfalls to March 2003 (WFP estimates) including September 2002 updates

Country + percentage of
population in need
Peak population in
population in
need of food aid (est. June 02)
figures (September 02)
Total cereal
shortfall April
02 - March 03
Proposed cereal food aid April 02 - March 03 (tonnes)
Revised cereal food needs Sept 02 - March 03
Proposed govt/
commercial cereal imports April 02 - March 03 (tonnes)
Zimbabwe 49%
Malawi 29%
Zambia 26%
Mozambique 3%
Lesotho 30%
Swaziland 24%
Angola 16%
Less Angola
(July 02)
Region including Angola

** On a previously calculated caseload in Angola of 1.25 million people WFP planned to provide 18,721 MT/month. With the target population rising to 1.9 million, the quantity of food assistance will need to increase.

In order to streamline activities, WFP launched a Regional Emergency operation (EMOP 10200) on 1st July 2002. This supersedes all existing WFP activities in the region.

Despite this, the Southern African humanitarian crisis is still receiving insufficient attention to date and the response from some governments and donors has been slow. As of 24 September, only 36% of the required $507 million funding had been pledged to WFP.

WFP, in a welcome move, has set up a Management and Logistics Unit in Johannesburg to facilitate transport and logistics within the region. OCHA are also opening an information hub, the Southern Africa Humanitarian Information Management Services (SAHIM) to serve the massive data collection and collation needs of the crisis. This should be operational from October 2002.

As the season progresses so more people will become vulnerable to food shortages. Reflecting this incremental need, the proposed response is phased, with increasing food requirements for each period. These are shown (though excluding Angola) in Table 2. These figures relate to the previously estimated beneficiary case-load in each country. Following the new figures released in mid September these will have to be revised for the September 2002 - March 2003 period. Significantly, the total food aid requirement has increased by 13% over the original June 2002 estimate.

Table 2. Predicted case loads (as of June 2002)

People in Need of Food
No of people receiving General Food Distribution
June-August 2002
Sept-November 2002
December-March 2003


It should be noted that the WFP EMOP will not meet all the food aid shortfall, nor target all the identified beneficiaries. It will target 80% of the affected population (10.2 million people), providing only 67% of food aid cereal needs. Implicit in the document is the requirement for other actors, principally international NGOs to develop parallel pipelines to make up the shortfall.

In Angola WFP had planned to distribute an average of 18,721 tonnes of food assistance to 1.25 million people per month until the end of the year. Recent assessments indicate that the numbers of people in need of food assistance will reach up to 1.9 million, placing enormous strain on the food pipeline and logistics capacity. Moves by the government to ensure that many of the Quartering and Family Areas (for demobilised UNITA troops and their families) are closed by mid October will add to the thousands of people already on the move back to home or resettlement areas. By mid September up to 600,000 people are thought to have returned to their homes/resettlement areas. Many of the resettlement areas are inadequately prepared to receive returnees, and issues such as land allocation, de-mining and the absence of basic services are major obstacles to people being able to support themselves.

Many donors have committed to assisting with the crisis, with a few making substantial interventions. The United States have committed over $275 million to the humanitarian crisis through USAID, Food for Peace and OFDA (Office of US Foreign Disaster Assistance) and the US Department of Agriculture. The majority of this has been as food aid2.

The European Commission response has been stilted and unclear. Whilst longer term development has always been their stated objective (rather than responding to short-term emergencies), their reaction to the crisis has been slow. It was not until July 2002 that they produced their strategy document3 but even this contains allusions to what they may or may not do rather than what they will do.

In June 2002, the UK's Department for International Development (DFID) committed £45 million for the general humanitarian crisis plus, since April 2002, an additional £5 million for Angola. About half the funds have gone directly to WFP whilst £14 million has been channelled through the NGO sector and £8 million has been assigned to agricultural recovery programmes4. This supplemented the £18 million that had already been committed in the region since the previous September.

In the UK, the Disasters Emergency Committee launched its own appeal on the 25th July. The appeal, which raises funds on behalf of 14 humanitarian agencies, is reliant on public donations and is therefore only successful following significant media coverage. As of the 19th September, the appeal fund stood at £13 million.

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1 See for example: Oxfam (2002) Crisis in southern Africa. Oxfam Briefing Paper 23 - Devereux, S (2002) The Malawi Famine 2002. Causes, consequences and policy lessons. May 2002 Paper commissioned by Action Aid

2 USAID (2002) Southern Africa Complex Food Security Crisis Situation Report #12. [From]

3 European Commission (2002) European Response to southern Africa humanitarian crisis. 9 July 2002.

4 Information taken from DFID website -