Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA)
Integrated Regional Information Network (IRIN)
JOHANNESBURG, 10 June (IRIN) - The current food crisis affecting 13 million people in Southern Africa has been described as a complex emergency. Apart from drought, political factors such as land reform in Zimbabwe, poverty, and HIV/AIDS, have all deepened the emergency.
A meeting of UN agencies, donors, NGOs and regional governments was held in South Africa last week to examine the crisis. IRIN spoke to Reggie Mugwara, director of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Harare-based Food and Natural Resources (FANR) unit. In the interview he criticised regional governments for not learning the lessons of the last great food crisis in 1991/92. Given the impact of economic reform programmes, and the realities of the increased vulnerability of rural households, he called for a re-think of agricultural policies - gearing them to benefit smallholder farmers. He also urged a regional response to tackle the crisis of food security.
QUESTION: What are the structural problems to the region's food crisis? What are key ingredients to the emergency?
ANSWER: I think the key ingredients to the problem are one, climatic variability within the region. We've always known that drought is endemic to the region, but I think our capacity to be able to respond has not matched [the needs]. The 1991/92 drought came, there were lessons learnt, but I don't think those lessons have been internalised enough to deal with this current situation. So that's one level of the problems we have. But we also have another level of problems emerging due to the [economic] liberalisation that has been taking place, particularly as it relates to the changing role of the state. The state in the past has been seen as the food security provider and guarantor, but that role, because of liberalisation, has had to change because you need to bring in the private sector to play a more meaningful role. So the concern now is that governments are weakening, but in certain countries the private sector has not grown sufficiently in order to take over the places that government has moved out of. We have seen how this has impacted negatively, especially in the remote areas where there is no profit motive for the private sector to move in. So when you get into a situation where you have climatic variations and a liberalised environment, then people who are vulnerable are more exposed than they were before because they've nothing to fall back on.
This is seen in terms of, even if food is imported into these countries, much of the food now is beyond the reach of ordinary people whose purchasing powers are constrained. But prices of food are going up because of the depreciation of regional currencies. But the fall of these currencies is not matched by the purchasing power of individuals, and in the end this becomes the nucleus of a humanitarian crisis where even if the food is available, it's unaffordable. In our situation [Zimbabwe], also the food is not coming as readily as it should in order to meet the humanitarian requirements that are on the ground.
So this is the situation we find ourselves in. What is it that needs to be done? The tendency is for people to go back to the past and start talking maybe about issues of subsidy. But given the complexity of the situation that is emerging on the ground, what do you do in situations where food is available but is unaffordable to the poor. Do you bring in donors to try and assist? But donors might insist on certain conditions being met, that the reform programme has to be on track, or you have to balance your books: the governments can't run deficits in order to protect the poor, so you leave the poor to whom? They are on their own.
So, these are some of the concerns that are coming up that need to be addressed in the context of a transition, when you are moving into a market economy, that there might be a need to cushion some of the worst effects of the reform programme itself. The reform programmes, yes are necessary, they are painful, but I think we need some contingency plans in order to minimise the worst effects of some of these things, particularly in the situation we [the region] are in. Therefore, the role of strategic grain reserves needs to be looked at much more closely, what role should they play? Is it to stabilise prices? Is it to avert humanitarian crises like we're seeing? But for that to happen what are the preconditions for running a successful strategic grain reserve in each of the countries? Is it a physical stock, is it a financing facility, is it a combination of both? Is there a role for the region to play in some of these things? Can the region hold a physical stock in order to alleviate some of the problems that the member states are [experiencing]? Others would argue that perhaps a financing facility is a better way if you bring in the private sector, where a financial facility is available. In times of shortages, countries can borrow money from that facility, do their purchases, and over time replenish and pay back, and so on.
So we need new answers to some of these problems that are coming up, and we think that some of these issues are being put on the agenda at this particular meeting. We talked about the role of the private sector, but the private sector has to be given incentives. Infrastructure has to be made available to them, information has to be made available, particularly marketing information systems, for them to be able to respond to the market signals which are there. So these are some of the preconditions. If the commercial sector has to play a role, what are the conditions for it to play a meaningful role, rather than in competition with government, but complementing the efforts of everybody. So these are some of the issues that are coming up. I think we need to follow them and deal with them in a more systematic way. You can't go back to the old ways, but we cannot also ignore the present realities which are here, that the vulnerable are much more vulnerable than they were. In 1991 they were at a certain [income/household security] level, but because of the effects of that drought, they hit a much lower level, which makes them now much more vulnerable. After this [crisis] they will be at an even lower level and we have to address the fundamental issues of development so that rising incomes of people in the rural areas will be able to mitigate some of the worst effects if another disaster falls upon the region.
Q: So it's not just food aid that is required now, this crisis is going to start a re-think of where we are?
A: There is a re-think that we need new methods to respond to the challenges which are here.
Q: But are governments taking that lesson to heart, or is it just the donors here and the NGOs that are talking about it? Are governments responding to that kind of lesson?
A: The governments are responding because there is a directive that was issued by SADC heads of states and governments in Malawi [this year] when they were discussing the food crisis that was affecting some of the member states. Monitor the situation, that was the instruction, come up with a strategy. If there are any political constraints which are affecting food security in the region, bring those issues back to us and we can deal with them at that level. The message was very clear, that they do not want to get into a situation where they are told about cereal deficits in the region. Disasters happen, whether it is floods or whatever. What is important is what capacity, what policies have been put into place, what is it that needs to be done institutionally to strengthen the institutions in order to respond. So the channel of communication is there in order to report back to the heads of state and government and say these are some of the policy constraints which we have in the region which are mitigating against food security.
Q: So this is a multi-dimensional problem. We've seen the evidence of household incomes in Malawi where households can't meet their food needs and they can't even afford to buy food on the market come the lean months starting in December. It seems you have to have a multi-pronged approach that addresses poverty and HIV/AIDS as well. How do you see governments doing this, given their capacity problems?
A: That's why a regional approach is a preferred approach where we approach these issues together because they are common to all of these countries that have been affected. We need to do something about HIV/AIDS and its implications, there's not much you can do about affected people [people with HIV/AIDS]. But those who are left behind, that has implications in terms of [extension services]. Do you focus extensions on kids, because there are kids who are heading households. What access do they have to land? What access do they have to food. What claim do they have to what-have-you? So these are new issues that are coming on the agenda that we need to address because that is the reality that is on the ground. There is no theoretical construct that we can follow, but we have to deal with these realities.
[For example] the issue of fertiliser. Fertiliser becomes important because of the incidents of HIV/AIDS. Labour is not available or most of the able-bodied people are bed-ridden, then in order to increase productivity, the use of fertiliser could be one way of assisting either the elderly or the young who are now the farmers in some of these communities. So, new ways of doing things, new ways of emphasising our responses have to be agreed upon and built upon, with the support of the donors.
Q: Are there any examples of good practices in the region that can be built upon? Was the starter pack scheme in Malawi [where the government with donor support provided small amounts of seeds and fertiliser to small farmers] an example?
A: Starter packs, yes, they are good. But, in the same breath, you get donors who criticise it, that you are distorting the market and so forth. But at the end of the day we in SADC have to agree - what is the nature of the problem we are dealing with? We are dealing with poverty, we are dealing with people who are more vulnerable than they were say 10 years ago. So we need to be able to address these things together with our cooperating partners so we agree on what is the best way forward. Food aid is not the best way forward. Food aid is only there to deal with an emergency, but we need long term strategies that will assist us in overcoming [these problems] particularly in dealing with the new realities on the ground - HIV/AIDS, and the region increasingly becoming vulnerable to climatic variations.
Q: People have said that the current crisis is a complex emergency because apart from HIV/AIDS, and macro-economic problems, there have been political problems. Do you see the political problems being a very serious issue. Have governments underestimated the importance of the agricultural sector?
A: I think there is no doubt that there is a lot of lip service that has been paid to agriculture in the region, if you look at it in terms of investment that has been put in. I think we need to re-direct our investments back into agriculture, particularly smallholder agriculture, which is the engine of growth for most of the countries that have been affected and that is the way to go. We are happy that SADC now has the capacity, in terms of a policy analysis network that is looking at these very issues, specific to each country, to see what it is that needs to be done in each country in order to increase productivity, in order to promote smallholder agriculture. How do we get the gains of international trade to the rural areas rather than only to the biggest commercial farmers so that you can spread your incomes across a greater number of people than hitherto [possible].
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