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close this bookFamine, Needs-assessment and Survival Strategies in Africa (Oxfam, 1993, 40 p.)
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentAcknowledgements
View the documentExecutive summary
View the document1 Introduction
Open this folder and view contents2 A case of crying wolf?
Open this folder and view contents3 Survival strategies and their 'costs'
View the document4 The dangers of relying on survival strategies
Open this folder and view contents5 Survival strategies: informing relief, not precluding it
View the documentBibliography

1 Introduction

In recent years, it has been common to hear that many millions of people face starvation in Africa, with local food production repeatedly falling well short of local needs. Yet, for the most part—and there are important exceptions, such as Ethiopia in 1983-85 and southern Sudan in 1988—mass mortality has not been observed. At the same time, there is evidence that the quantities of emergency relief received by those undergoing crisis have usually been quite insufficient to provide subsistence.

This raises an obvious but important question: how is it that people are managing to survive in the face of apparently huge food deficits and inadequate relief-? One answer that has been receiving increasing attention is that rural Africans have a wide range of 'survival strategies'—designed to prevent or ameliorate famine—that are often poorly understood by Western aid donors and agencies.

The strategies have sometimes been seen as rather mysterious, even magical: a case of conjuring survival out of virtually nothing. But one book in particular has done a great deal to explain the specific, practical form taken by such strategies, and to put the issue of 'survival strategies' on the agenda of relief organizations: de Waal's study of famine in Darfur, Sudan, 1984-85, Famine that Kills. De Waal showed that even the unusually large reliefeffort to western Sudan in 1984-85 provided no more than about 12 per cent of the food consumed by people in Darfur during the famine, arguing that this had little appreciable effect on their survival chances. In his recent study of famine in Ethiopia for Africa Watch, de Waal suggests that 'Similarly, in Ethiopia (in the mid1980s), famine relief was at best the last ten per cent which assisted rural people in surmising’.

De Waal's work throws a great deal of light on these issues. It is also a valuable counter to the common image of rural Africans as helpless, passive victims. But there may be important dangers in relying on and in uncritically applauding what are often called 'indigenous survival strategies', perhaps at the expense of organising external relief Indeed, even the word 'indigenous' may be a dangerous one, insofar as it implies that strategies are somehow 'home-made' and therefore essentially 'good'.

De Waal himself is careful to avoid these dangers: for example, he distinguishes between strategies tending to undermine economic livelihoods in the long term and other less harmful strategies, and he gives a great deal of attention to how relief might best be constituted so as to support the priorities of rural people (who overwhelmingly favour strategies that do not undermine long-term livelihoods). Importantly, while De Waal makes many points about how relief might have been better handled, he does not question that there was a need for relief in the context of the 1984-85 famine in Darfur.

That said, the new attention being given to 'survival strategies' (often called 'coping strategies') is not necessarily benign. The 'survival strategies' perspective may be a dangerous one in the wrong hands. In many countries, donors appear to be looking for ways to trim their assistance in relation to what appear to be continuing emergencies that perhaps cannot command the attention of Western electorates indefinitely. Journalists, having sometimes raised the alarm of'famine' after briefings from NGOs and the UN, are beginning to ask why the 'famine' never materialized, and to question whether a major relief effort was really necessary in the first place. Meanwhile, aid agencies in some countries are reported to be increasingly fed up with handling protracted emergency relief programmes, often preferring involvement in 'development'.

In these circumstances, it is quite possible that the growing attention to 'survival strategies' will feed into an increasing reluctance to mount major emergency relief operations. One researcher reports that, during a recent visit to Khartoum, many donor officials were talking in glowing terms about people's 'coping strategies' and apparently using these strategies as a justification for the small quantities of relief delivered or planned. Oxfam field staff in Sudan reported that donors felt Darfur's requirements for 1991 were overstated, since quantities of relief delivered to Darfur represented less than half the assessed need (60,000mt compared with 144,000mt), whilst migration and mortality did not occur on the scale of 1984-85. My own research on famine in Sudan in 1984-85 and in 1986-88 suggests that a reluctance to 'interfere in the local economy' encouraged and legitimated relief failures that proved very harmful for those suffering famine. Further, as Oxford social historian Megan Vaughan points out, if aid agencies are moving towards a position where they applaud and encourage economic processes and strategies occurring 'naturally' and apparently 'traditionally' in rural Africa, they need to think not only about how 'traditional' such strategies may really be (in the context of emerging commercialization and changing sources of political power), but also about how the agencies' position may differ (and not differ) from the support for the free market adopted by organizations such as the World Bank. The implications of such a stance on aid agencies' human rights mandates require careful thought.

This paper makes no radical departure from the framework for analysing survival strategies and relief that was outlined by de Waal. It attempts to synthesis the views of a number of people with direct experience of emergency situations, both within and outside Oxfam, and it finds that de Waal's position is largely supported by this diverse experience. Survival strategies are, indeed, of critical importance in ensuring survival; it is vital that they be properly understood; and it is important that relief operations be designed with these strategies in mind.

On the other hand, this paper suggests that it is also important to guard against the misuse of this concept of 'survival strategies'. In the first place, it is emphasised that many 'survival strategies', or 'coping strategies', are extremely damaging for those pursuing them. Even if they help to prevent outright starvation, they may do great damage to long-term food security and to the environment, and they may involve considerable, unacceptable suffering in themselves. The very term 'coping strategies' may thus be a dangerously misleading one: at the very least, it begs the question, 'coping at what cost?' Whilst it is possible to think in terms of a 'community' pursuing survival strategies, it is quite likely that many of the strategies pursued will confer quite unequal benefits. For example, they may involve exploitative market transactions. It will be important, then, to avoid jumping to the conclusion that agencies and donors should support 'indigenous survival strategies' in some undiscriminating way. That said, provision of the right kind of relief at the right time can play a key role in supporting survival strategies in a way that reduces or removes the need to resort to those types of strategy that are actively damaging.

Whilst famine has sometimes been conceived as people starving to death (Sen), local conceptions off amine tend to embrace longer-term suffering and economic processes which may culminate in death if left unchecked (see, for example, Rangasami on India, and de Waal on Sudan). Even where mass mortality is prevented, such processes may create a lasting vulnerability to future famines among those whose assets and productive base have been depleted. Rather than applauding survival strategies in an undiscriminating way, it may therefore be more helpful to ask: how far is one prepared to go in allowing the processes of famine to advance, bearing in mind the increasing suffering as people are forced to adopt more and more damaging survival strategies, often jeopardizing future production and exposing themselves to future famine in so doing?

Indeed, there is a danger in assuming that the pursuit of a survival strategy somehow implies that it is successful. Insofar as survival strategies can be placed in a hierarchy (see later discussion of Watts), with the most preferred adopted first and the least preferred adopted last (of course, in real life the matter is never quite as neat as this), then the adoption of any strategy other than the most preferred implies that previous strategies employed have failed to resolve the crisis.

Another danger with uncritically applauding survival strategies, and with downplaying the need for emergency relief, is that there may be very important constraints to the pursuit of survival strategies (political, military, economic); something de Waal himself has increasingly emphasized, as he has given further emphasis to the links between human-rights abuses and famine (see, for example, the book Euil Days, an Africa Watch study of famine and war in Ethiopia). Clearly, such constraints are likely to be forgotten if one praises the 'traditional coping strategies' of rural people in an uncritical, romanticized manner.

Rather than assuming that these constraints do not exist, that people are somehow able to pursue traditional coping strategies unimpeded by outside forces, it is important for agencies to seek actively to identify these constraints. This has two major advantages. First, there may be things that agencies can do to reduce these constraints (for example, by injecting income into a particular region so as to reduce the constraint to the sale of handicrafts posed by lack of effective demand, or by lobbying for the removal of political constraints). Second, in those cases where constraints to survival strategies are very significant, it will be particularly important to ensure adequate deliveries of emergency relief supplies. One cannot simply assume that 'survival strategies' ensure survival; it is necessary to investigate the efficacy of these strategies in different contexts. Particularly in wartime, this efficacy may be very limited and old-fashioned emergency relief correspondingly vital.