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close this bookFamine, Needs-assessment and Survival Strategies in Africa (Oxfam, 1993, 40 p.)
close this folder3 Survival strategies and their 'costs'
View the document(introduction...)
View the document3.1 Eating wild foods
View the document3.2 Going hungry
View the document3.3 Food preparation
View the document3.4 Slavery
View the document3.5 Sale of assets (productive/non-productive) and purchase of food
View the document3.6 Trading
View the document3.7 Labouring
View the document3.8 Household migration
View the document3.9 Consurnption of assets
View the document3.10 Borrowing
View the document3.11 Gifts
View the document3.12 Receiving remittances
View the document3.13 Theft


One category of survival strategies consists of those that are undertaken in advance of a particular crisis (for example, a failure of the rains) in order to maximise the prospects for a good crop and a good income. This kind of strategy has been well analysed in Watts (1983), and other studies. Such strategies have been important in Africa in recent years, as they always have been. For example, Darfur farmers are reported to be giving renewed emphasis to planting different plots in different locations, and to making as full use as possible of river or wadi land, notably in the Kutum area. Wadz land is often scarce, however. Meanwhile, larger areas are being planted, and fallows neglected. Fast-maturing and drought-resistant varieties of sorghum are reported to be increasingly favoured by farmers in Darfur, despite the traditional preference for consuming and producing millet. Storing food is also a vital hedge against poor harvests: storing cassava and sorghum is reported to have played a key role in contributing to survival in Mozambique. Stores of wealth in the form of livestock have been vital throughout Africa.

Strategies undertaken in advance of a crisis are not the main focus here, however. This paper concentrates on strategies used in reaction to a crisis, and highlights some of the 'costs' of these strategies which have often been overlooked. Watts' study of famine in Hausaland, northern Nigeria, 1973-74, led him to the idea that there is a hierarchy of survival strategies, from those that tend to be adopted first to those that tend to be adopted last. The hierarchy can be put like this:

Use of famine foods
Borrowing of grain from kin
Sale of labour power
Engaging in dry-season farming
Sale of small livestock
Borrowing of grain or cash from merchants
Sales of domestic assets
Pledging of land
Sale of land
Permanent outmigration.

Those strategies nearer the top of the list not only tend to be employed earlier, but they also involve a smaller commitment of domestic resources and they are more readily reversible, Watts said. Strategies employed at a later stage involve greater commitment of domestic resources, and are increasingly irreversible. (This is by no means a comprehensive list of survival strategies.) There is support for this idea from other studies. Cutler's study of the Beja in Red Sea Hills at the beginning of 198B, Rahmato's of Wollo 1984-8B and de Waal's of Darfur 1984-8B all found that people held on to productive assets for as long as possible, and that outmigration was the last resort.

Survival strategies can be divided into those that jeopardise future production and those that do not. One can also distinguish between jeopardizing the future production capacity of individual households (for example, through loss of livestock) and jeopardising the future production in a particular area (for example, through damage to the natural environment, or through taking time away from education, thus undermining a commit productivity in the long term). Furthermore, survival strategies in themselves may or may not involve significant suffering and health risks. All these considerations, as well as reversibility and the extent of commitment of domestic assets, would appear to be likely to influence the choice of strategies to be adopted first and those to be postponed until the last possible moment.

In the following section (and in no particular order), a number of particular survival strategies are discussed in relation to Oxfam's experience in particular. Some of the 'costs' of these strategies are pointed out.