Lesotho + 5 more

Southern Africa: Statement by Andrew Natsios, Administrator, USAID before the House International Relations Committee

News and Press Release
Originally published
Thank you, Mr. Chairman, for giving me the opportunity to come here today and address the complex food security crisis that is developing in southern Africa.


Southern Africa is currently facing a complex food security crisis due to adverse climate conditions, mismanagement of grain reserves, and questionable government policies, primarily in Zimbabwe.

Just as in the drought of 1991-92, the size of the problem is likely to overwhelm the coping capacities of the most affected countries within the region and become a regional emergency. I was responsible for managing the U.S. Government's humanitarian response to the southern African drought of 1991-92, a drought we successfully prevented from becoming a famine.

United States missions in Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, Mozambique, Swaziland and Lesotho have all assessed the problem to varying degrees. The food security situation is increasingly alarming, especially due to emerging concerns about regional cereal availability, the ability of regional governments to close any cereal gap and the affordability of food.

USAID has been closely monitoring the situation in southern Africa over the past year and during that period has taken a number of actions that could, I believe, position the international community to PREVENT a famine, not RESPOND to one. However, the outstanding issues I will outline for you today still must be addressed if we are to succeed in that effort.

Today, Zimbabwe is already on the verge of a serious food crisis, with as many as 6.0 million people at risk. The potential for large-scale humanitarian crises also exists in Malawi and Zambia. Poor and vulnerable households in Mozambique, Swaziland, and Lesotho will also require humanitarian assistance. The governments of several countries in Southern Africa have already declared national disasters due to the food security crisis, namely Malawi (February 27), Lesotho (April 22), Zimbabwe (April 30), and Zambia (May 29).

According to the recent United Nations assessment, over the next nine months, nearly 3.2 million tons of food will need to be imported -- commercially and through humanitarian assistance -- to meet the minimum food needs of the sub-region's population. The World Food Program (WFP) estimates that over 1.2 million metric tons of corn will need to be provided by the international donor community in emergency food aid to meet the requirements of some 12.8 million of the region's most vulnerable people between now and March 2003.

Pre-famine Indicators

As a result of political actions taken by the Government, the people of Zimbabwe are witnessing a total collapse of their food system. This has been greatly exacerbated by flooding in 2000 and 2001 and by drought this year. These two factors - political and climatic -- created conditions where food is simply not available in markets, and where attempts to control food prices and to prohibit the commercial importation and movement of grain have resulted in highly inflated prices. Further complicating matters is the loss of employment and income earning opportunities, combined with the many costs borne by HIV/AIDS-affected households and orphans. Thus, the price of the maize is now beyond the reach of even many middle-class Zimbabweans and has forced them to cope in desperate ways, including the sale of productive assets. Now, more than ever before, children are vulnerable to prostitution (and therefore potentially contracting HIV/AIDS) simply in order to eat. It is clear that unless the Government of Zimbabwe enables the commercial and international donor community to respond appropriately, the slide towards famine will continue rapidly.

The threat of famine in Malawi is also very real, although the Famine Early Warning System's analysis of pre-famine indicators suggests that the threat is less than in Zimbabwe. Prolonged exposure to natural disasters, flooding in recent years, and reduced rainfall this past year, have combined with poverty, extremely small family farms, and HIV/AIDS to lead prices well beyond the reach of the majority of the population.

And while serious chronic and acute food security indicators for Zambia, Mozambique, Lesotho, and Swaziland also exist, the threat of famine in these countries is far less serious at the present time.

How did this Crisis Develop?

The regional food security crisis southern Africa is currently facing developed as a result of a series of episodic shocks. Floods at the end of last year and the unusually dry conditions that extended across much of the region during the past growing season have caused families to exhaust their coping mechanisms to the point of being hungry during harvest. Over the last year, Zimbabwe has lost its position as a net exporter of both grain and family remittances due to its economic and political crises. Government mismanagement of strategic grain reserves, which normally fill gaps in drought years for Malawi, has left the country without a safety net.

While serious droughts have taken their toll on the southern Africa region periodically in the past, the crisis emerging today is not the result of just adverse weather conditions. For example, even if the weather had been good in the past agricultural season in Zimbabwe, it still would have produced only half of its own food consumption needs. However, under political and economic conditions of previous years, the country would have been able to commercially import the balance.

In Zimbabwe, several economic missteps have contributed to the regional crisis. First, the government of Zimbabwe implemented price controls for staples, such as corn, which inhibit production and trade. Second, it has backtracked on the liberalization of grain marketing, bringing corn back under the control of the grain marketing parastatal and creating a monopoly that prohibits open commercial trade. Third, the government's irresponsible expropriation of land from commercial farmers has decimated the most productive part of Zimbabwe's agricultural sector. The Government of Zimbabwe also has serious foreign exchange restrictions, limiting its ability to import sufficient grain and making ancillary farming inputs (fuel for tractors, fertilizer, etc.) either unavailable or exorbitantly expensive. Fourth, the Zimbabwean Government's regressive policies have collapsed the national economy, sharply reducing family income.

All of these economic policies have tied the hands of the private sector, and when coupled with the drought have meant that even families with money cannot find food, and that an increasing number of people are becoming vulnerable and unable to purchase food.

In addition, we are deeply concerned about serious allegations that the Government of Zimbabwe has manipulated the current food security situation for political purposes since food shortages began in December of last year. It has been credibly reported that opposition party members have been prevented from buying corn from the Grain Marketing Board, and that jobs in public works programs have been reserved for government supporters. In addition, the children of opposition party members have been driven away from school supplementary feeding programs in rural areas. It is important to note that these alleged political uses of food have not involved food aid received from donors, but food distributed and sold under government control. USAID is working exclusively through international and private voluntary organizations in Zimbabwe, which have in place systems to minimize the potential for politicization of food aid distribution.

In Malawi, the primary cause of the current food security crisis is low production during the 2001/2002 growing season, which followed a mediocre 2000/2001 harvest. Another important cause of the crisis is poor government management. Between August 2000 and 2001, the government disposed of 167,000 tons of corn reserves. There are legitimate questions as to how this corn was sold, who benefited and if proper procedures were used. Moreover, the government of Malawi's privatization of agricultural parastatals is only half completed. Currently, more than 70% of the people cannot afford to buy corn since price controls have been eliminated. The government has responded by subsidizing prices for the poor rather than encouraging the private sector to play a more active role in the importation of corn.

The high rates of HIV/AIDS has also exacerbated the effects of the drought by both reducing family income, and by increasing the costs to the household. HIV/AIDS should be recognized as one of the greatest threats to the southern Africa region. With the highest HIV prevalence rates in the world, southern Africa has 28.1 million people living with the disease. The economic impact is massive as investments are depleted and human resources are lost. HIV/AIDS is causing the collapse of social safety nets and faith communities, leaving people even more vulnerable. As people become increasingly desperate for food and other resources, they may engage in high-risk behavior such as prostitution or migration that leaves them vulnerable to infections. It is thus important to ensure that districts and communities affected by food shortages and high HIV prevalence have food available in the local economy.

USAID's Early Warning System and Proactive Response

Beginning in the fall of 2001, USAID has been working closely with its field missions and embassies in the region, and has taken the following actions to address the impending crisis:

  • USAID notified inter-agency committees of the USG of the developing food security crisis in southern Africa - in particular in Zimbabwe.

  • USAID notified the WFP of the developing situation in southern Africa and asked that it immediately expand its presence and its response capacity in the region - which it did.

  • USAID began working with NGOs in Zimbabwe to establish an emergency food aid program in Matebeleland South - an area particularly hard-hit by the drought.

  • USAID's Famine Early Warning System Network (FEWS NET) monitored the development of the food security crisis through regular USAID field assessments and participation in wider assessments conducted by the international humanitarian community.
So far this year, the U.S. Government has approved 132,710 metric tons (MT) of food aid, valued at approximately $68.4 million, to address food insecurity in southern Africa. We are currently supplying about 75 percent of the total resources for WFP's existing operations in the region, making us by far the largest contributor. Even with that, however, WFP still faces a 56 percent shortfall in its current operations, and will be launching a regional appeal in about a week requesting 1.2 million MT of maize to feed 12.8 million people over the next nine months. Other donors need to step in and take action, and while in Rome earlier this week I encouraged many of my counterparts in Europe and other donor countries to do so.

The 132, 710 MT is allocated as follows:

  • USAID approved 106,210 MT, valued at approximately $55.1 million.

  • USDA approved 26,500 MT, valued at approximately $13.3 million.

  • Of the approved commodities, 82,000 MTs have been allocated to WFP, 14,000 MT has been allocated to World Vision, and 36, 450 is currently in the process of being allocated.
The first 8,470 MTs of corn meal arrived in Zimbabwe in March. The bulk of the remaining commodities was shipped in April for arrival in the region between May and early August.

This assistance has been provided to our implementing partners in Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.

USAID Management Structure for Crisis Response

On April 11, 2002, a United States Government (USG) Inter-Agency Policy Coordination Committee Sub-Group (PCC Sub-Group), co-chaired by USAID's Bureau of Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance (DCHA) and the Department of State Bureau for Population, Refugees and Migration (DOS/PRM), agreed that a working group of USAID, DOS, National Security Council (NSC), Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Department of Defense (DOD) should be established to develop a USG policy framework to respond to the emerging southern Africa complex food security crisis. This USG inter agency working group has been established and is chaired by USAID's Director of the DCHA Office of Food for Peace (DCHA/FFP). The first working group meeting was held on April 27, 2002.

USAID also established a Southern Africa Action Team (SAAT) in Washington. SAAT is serving as the principal USAID humanitarian point of contact for this region with all outside and interagency stakeholders.

USAID emergency response field staff have been mobilized from throughout Africa to conducted assessments in the following countries:

  • Swaziland - April 21-24
  • Lesotho - April 30-May 4
  • Zimbabwe - May 5-11
  • Malawi - May 5-11
  • Zambia - May 12-20
  • Mozambique - May 20-24
USAID staff also participated as observers in the WFP/FAO Crop and Food Supply Assessment Missions conducted in Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia, and Zimbabwe (not those in Lesotho and Swaziland).

Call to Action

1) USG Response Mechanisms

Based on initial field assessments, the Food Assistance Policy Council agreed that food aid requirements in the region would exceed the level of USG food aid funding available in Fiscal Year 2002 and approved a drawdown of 275,000 metric tons of wheat from the Bill Emerson Humanitarian Trust (Emerson Trust). This wheat will be converted (swapped) by USDA into a total of approximately 190,000 metric tons of corn, beans, and vegetable oil. While the Trust is held in wheat, the 1998 Africa Seeds of Hope Act allows the Secretary of Agriculture to swap wheat for commodities of equal value. This she has agreed to do.

Under the guidelines of the Emerson Trust, the Secretary of Agriculture is authorized to release up to 500,000 metric tons for urgent humanitarian relief in disasters, in the case of unanticipated need, and to provide an additional 500,000 metric tons of eligible commodities that could have been released but were not in previous years. The Secretary of Agriculture is also authorized to release eligible commodities from the reserve when U.S. domestic supplies are so limited that eligible commodities cannot be made available for programming under PL 480.

U.S. missions and embassies in the region have been encouraged to engage other donor government representatives in the affected countries regarding the probable magnitude of the upcoming food-deficit, USG resource limitations, and the need for other donor assistance in the region.

2) Policy Reform

In Zimbabwe, commercial mechanisms are currently hampered from functioning to close the cereal deficit, so adequate quantities of food are not available and affordable to the majority of people. Thus, a critical focus must be on policies that allow the private sector in Zimbabwe to close this deficit. This will help to moderate prices and ensure food access to the greatest number of people.

Policy advice coming from the Western world, however, no matter how expert and correct, is not likely to achieve any policy changes within a Mugabe government, given its current mood. However, if an influential African (e.g. Kofi Annan) were to become involved, recommendations might be more easily accepted.

In Malawi, management of the strategic grain reserve must be modified to create a transparent and reliable system, and privatization of food markets must be completed.

If policy change does take place to allow the commercial sector to react to close the cereal gap, then USAID needs to send a clear signal to the commercial sector that any emergency food aid provided will be done only to protect those without usual market access. This is important so that commercial importers understand that emergency food aid will not depress market prices, since projected selling prices are the basis upon which importers have an incentive to import.

3) Regional Leadership

USAID will continue to support the SADC Drought and Flood Post Rainy Season Forum to address regional trade problems in relationship to the cereal deficit. We will attempt to re-initiate discussion with SADC about market-based regional grain security enhancing mechanisms (e.g. use of catastrophe bonds) that would provide greater food security for the region, should drought continue (possibly El Nino affected) next year.

4) Regional Transportation Coordination

Southern Africa's transport system has, by all accounts, less capacity than it did during the crisis in the early 1990's. In order to maximize the capacity of the regional transportation infrastructure, all countries in the region will have to coordinate the movement of both commercial and humanitarian shipments. At this time, WFP will is working with the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) to establish a regional logistics center to facilitate and coordinate the transport of food aid in the region. USAID has requested that US Missions keep it informed of any issues relating to port and transport activities that could delay the delivery of humanitarian food and non-food assistance.

5) Waiver Of Requirement For Non-Genetically Modified Commodities

During past humanitarian interventions in southern Africa, the USG provided significant quantities of bulk corn, as it is the staple grain in the region and it can be delivered more quickly and cost-effectively than other USG commodities. Today, the Government of Zimbabwe (GOZ) restricts the import of U.S whole kernel yellow corn, because it contains corn produced through biotechnology. DCHA believes that unless the GOZ will waive its restrictions on the import of U.S corn, it will be difficult, if not impossible, for the USG to respond to the extensive food requirements that have been identified.

USAID is working with USDA and the USAID Mission in Zimbabwe on actions that can be undertaken to remove import restrictions related to the importation of U.S. whole kernel corn - perhaps via a humanitarian waiver.

USAID is also evaluating the availability of U.S. sorghum as an alternative grain. It is highly unlikely, however, that a sufficient quantity of sorghum will be available this year. Thus, USAID has informed the US Missions in the region that the USG is prepared to provide both whole grain corn and U.S. processed corn products for use in food aid activities in the region. However, neither USDA nor USAID will pay any special handling, processing or labeling costs associated with recipient country restrictions on the import of U.S. transgenic commodities.

Targeting of Assistance

To help prevent increases in malnutrition in Southern Africa, the USG is supporting a general food aid targeting approach to help meet the needs of specific categories of vulnerable groups. These categories include:

  • those with specialized needs, such as children under five, orphans, households affected by HIV/AIDs, and the elderly.

  • those with needs within the worst drought-affected areas, particularly rural households whose livelihoods have been most affected by drought and/or policy-induced shocks.

  • those individuals in rural and urban households, including those affected by HIV/AIDS, whose extremely low incomes place them at the highest risk of severe under-consumption because of inadequate purchasing power.
In bringing food and non-food aid to the region, USAID will address the qualitative aspects of its partners' operations, such as: 1) sensitivity to the needs of vulnerable groups, especially women; 2) health and nutritional services; and 3) long-term food-security activities. In the interests of post-emergency recovery, USAID will use food aid, not only to ensure the nutritional objective of providing affected people food to eat in the short term, but also to support economic activities to encourage long term food-security, self-sufficiency and protect, or build, productive and market assets.

Using local democratic structures for the targeting and distribution of USG food will create a nucleus for strengthening community responsibilities for future development activities. Supplementary and therapeutic feeding programs will be established to address serious mal-nourishment situations. And, ultimately, market intervention activities will be implemented in those countries and locations where groups have access to income, but where the market is unable to use normal commercial channels to obtain food resources.


In southern Africa, we face an extremely difficult situation - one of the worst in the last ten years - but it is not yet a famine. There are, however, clear indications that the specter is on the horizon. We have taken stock of the current needs and have already taken action to prevent famine before it occurs. However, the primary responsibility for the food security of these people rests, of course, with the governments of the countries concerned. Our role will be to complement government efforts and to ensure loss of lives and livelihoods is minimized.