Current approaches to food crises are failing Africa’s poor

Published: 21 July 2006

After five decades of responding to food crises, Oxfam today asks the international community to seriously examine whether current approaches are working. Oxfam’s new report argues that new thinking and more action are needed if we are to effectively address the long-term needs of the poor and hungry in Africa.

In its report “Causing Hunger: An overview of the food crisis in Africa” Oxfam warns that the average number of food emergencies in Africa has nearly tripled since the mid 1980s.

The report argues that food aid-led emergency interventions are often only a partial solution, and that increased long-term support of agriculture, infrastructure, and social safety nets in vulnerable countries is vital.

While food aid is appropriate in certain situations, the report shows that it is often too late, too costly and too politicized. It also finds that the ravages of HIV, conflict and climate change are major causes of food crises for which a solution is possible.

Oxfam International Executive Director, Jeremy Hobbs said: “The cycle of disaster and food insecurity in parts of Africa can be broken but only if the world addresses the causes of these crises. Though spending on humanitarian aid is rising, donors and governments are not fully supporting the long term strategies necessary to genuinely help Africa’s poor.”

The report is being released amid renewed threats of humanitarian crisis in Niger, where at least one million people are vulnerable to severe food insecurity as we enter the annual July to October lean season. Meanwhile in East Africa up to 11 million people require urgent assistance. One senior UN official described the situation as “a silent tsunami”, and UN appeals to support responses to the situation are chronically under-funded.

The blunt instrument of food aid delivery has remained the chief tool used by the international community to address food insecurity. Despite recent welcome moves from some of the major donors to buy their food aid from developing countries, most food aid is still imported, meaning it can take up to 5 months to deliver and cost up to 50 per cent more than food purchased locally.

Although food aid can play an important role in emergencies and save lives, it should not be viewed as the inevitable default response to food insecurity, particularly where poverty is the main cause of hunger. Other innovative solutions – such as cash transfers, food vouchers or cash-for-work programmes – may be more appropriate.

A measure of the myopic short-termism is the fact that although there has been a welcome increase in spending on humanitarian aid in recent years, aid for agricultural production in Sub-Saharan Africa dropped by 43% between 1990-92 and 2000-02.

Conflict, HIV and climate change compound Africa’s food crises:

  • Africa’s conflicts are the cause of more than half the continent’s food crises. The current situation in Darfur, where 3.4m people are dependant on food aid, is a classic example of the devastating humanitarian emergency that conflict creates.

  • HIV/AIDS is exacting a terrifying toll on one of Africa’s key resources for food production – people. By 2020 a fifth of the agricultural workforce in Southern African countries will have been claimed by AIDS.

  • Climate change is wreaking havoc on the livelihoods of small landholders and nomadic pastoralists in Africa. Researchers predict that about 60m more Africans will be at risk of hunger by the 2080s because of a rise in global temperatures.

Hobbs continued: “It will cost the world far less to make a major investment now in a tackling the root causes of hunger than continuing the current cycle of too little, too late that has been the reality of famine relief in Africa for nearly half a century.”

According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, the proportion of human-induced food emergencies has more than doubled over the last 20 years. But what humans have broken, humans can also mend, so Oxfam is today calling for the following actions:

  • Donor governments, particularly the US, must re-examine their food aid policy, untie their contributions, and look to increase the proportion of locally purchased food. They must also ensure interventions work more to support livelihoods of those most at risk.

  • African governments should adhere to the commitments made at the 2003 African Union summit for national governments to increase agricultural spending to 10% of budgets. Governments should also establish long-term “social protection” schemes for people affected by chronic food insecurity and make available resources for a predictable need.

  • Aid agencies, donors, UN and governments should increase their use of innovative alternatives to food aid such as cash-based programming to ensure that Africa’s poor are given more sustainable and flexible assistance.



Contact Information

For more information/photos/VNR & interview requests, please contact:

• UK: Douglas Keatinge on +44 1865-472359 or +44 7785-257872,

• Nairobi/East Africa: Beatrice Karanja on +254-202820136 or +254-733632810,

• Dakar/West Africa: Lauren Gelfand on +22-16394178,

• Johannesburg/Southern Africa: Caroline Hooper-Box, +27-824603184,