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close this bookWar and Famine in Africa (Oxfam, 1991, 36 p.)
close this folder1. Introduction
View the document(introduction...)
View the document1.1 The international context
View the document1.2 Oxfam's experience in Africa
View the document1.3 A Note on methodology


This report stems from a concern of Oxfam that, during 1991, emergency work in Africa would be dominated by situations of famine connected with war. Since it is believed, moreover, that a strong relationship exists between the two, a broad report was requested to inform Oxfam's position on this important issue.

1.1 The international context

Since the end of World War II, there have been no direct conflicts between the leading states of the developed world. This peace, however, has co-existed with a growth of violence and war in the Third World, typically in the form of proliferating internal or intra-state conflict. Moreover, most casualties have been not soldiers but civilians. Millions have now been killed, maimed, bereaved, or made destitute by such wars. The end of the Cold War, apart from confirming peace in the West, has helped to focus attention on the growth of civil wars elsewhere, and to highlight the fact that, whether arising from ethnic, environmental, or political and civil conditions, such internal conflicts are largely beyond the bounds of current international conventions on warfare or accepted political structures (Rupesinghe, 1990). In many respects, the present period is one of great change and uncertainty as traditional definitions of sovereignty and the state, from Europe through the Middle East to Africa, face major challenges and pressures to adapt.

1.2 Oxfam's experience in Africa

Oxfam's recent experience in Africa is witness to the growth of internal conflict and its devastating effects on civilian populations. The effects of the war in Eritrea and Tigray became increasingly apparent from 1985. During 1986, the nature of the conflict in South Sudan began to manifest itself clearly. In the same year, due to increasing need, Oxfam committed itself to relief work in war-torn Mozambique. By 1987, despite hopes to the contrary, the situation in Northern Uganda had begun to signal a continuation of insecurity. Around the same time, a better understanding of the effects of war in Northern Sudan and Ethiopia was being developed. Following more than a decade of experience with refugees in Somalia, the outbreak of civil war there in 1988 marked a major deterioration in the situation. In the same year, an office was opened in devastated Angola, and the need for emergency intervention made evident. Alongside this ongoing involvement, more recently conflict has again erupted in Rwanda. Thus, from the Horn, through Central to Southern Africa, since the mid-1980s, Oxfam has increasingly found itself having to deal with the effects of war and violence.

The cumulative effect of this experience suggests that conflict may have become a long-term problem. In general terms, emergency work, often related to famine relief, has come to characterise those countries affected by war and insecurity. This is especially the case if drought is also encountered. Indicative here is the pattern of Oxfam's emergency spending. During the 1989/90 financial year, out of a combined Catastrophe and Earmarked Budget of nearly œ17 million, around 80 per cent was spent in Africa's war-affected countries (Emergencies Unit, 1989/90). In some places, Sudan and Somalia, for example, established development projects have been undermined by the spread of conflict. In Ethiopia and Southern Africa, on the other hand, due to war preparedness or long-standing insecurity, programmes have been mostly constrained from the outset within a relief mode. The typical response of field staff in such circumstances has been one of frustration and despair as the scope for any significant move beyond relief work remains limited or non-existent.

Oxfam's response to the upward trend in internal conflict in the Third World' can be roughly divided between those initiatives located in Oxfam House and those based in country offices. The former relate more widely to the Third World, and since civilians, often Oxfam's beneficiaries, are the main casualties, they are concerned with the profound issues of policy that this situation presents. Earlier work has focused upon the arms trade and the relation between gender and war. The Public Affairs Unit is currently assessing Oxfam's response to conflict situations over the past decade. In addition, the PAU has produced a number of relevant publications (such as Smith, 1990). The position with regard to human rights and lobbying is also being examined by the Research and Evaluation Unit. Finally, a consultancy is researching the role of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and conflict resolution (Fisher, 1990). Taken together, this on-going activity, which closely reflects country concerns, attests to a widely felt disquiet.

With regard to the country offices, the response to conflict has been mainly concerned with the elaboration of appropriate management structures, policy development, and comprehension. With regard to management, while relief work is typically administered by a country office in collaboration with the Emergencies Unit and the appropriate Desk, the effects of war in Africa have marked a new departure. Internal conflict not only creates single-country problems but, in terms of population movements and relief logistics, it has major implications for bordering countries. Since May 1988 there have been five Sudan Cross Border (SDX) Regional Meetings, bringing together staff from Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia, Kenya, Uganda, and Oxfam House (Sudan, August 1990). They have served as an important forum for debatingjoint administrative, logistical and policy issues created by the spread of intra-state conflict.

With regard to comprehending the causes of conflict and war, the situation is more diffuse. Comments and analyses are, in the main, scattered throughout numerous Situation Reports, annual reports, country evaluations, and so on. The main exception here, building upon the success of the SDX meetings, was the Kampala Emergencies Conference of October 1989. In addition to the regular SDX countries, representatives from Angola, Mozambique and Namibia were also invited, but could not attend. Besides discussing Oxfam's practical and policy responses to internal conflict, the conference also examined the nature of conflict itself (Oxford, 24/10/89). A submission from the Uganda Office pointed out that most academic approaches either take an objective view that focuses, for example, on the economic trends that underlie conflict, or, alternatively, a subjective analysis is given which concentrates upon the meaning that people themselves give to the events of which they are part (Uganda, October 1989). It was argued that objective and subjective approaches should not be seen as antagonistic but, in fact, as complementary and having much to offer each other. This view was endorsed by the Kampala Conference which, in the resulting resolutions, laid stress upon the need for a better understanding of the subjective dimension of conflict, including trauma, and for relief interventions to be planned accordingly.

1.3 A Note on methodology

In writing this report, a lead has been taken from the Kampala Conference. That is, an attempt is made first to examine the factors underlying famine and conflict in Africa and then to relate these to the reality and logic of warfare. Where possible, Oxfam sources used. There is a difficulty here, however. Apart from the question of adequate coverage, country offices differ in terms of their levels of understanding, length of operation, and degree of access. In general terms, the Horn and Uganda have a wider experience in this respect. Rather than a country-by-country analysis, especially given the time constraint, the chosen method of presentation is broadly comparative. A country-by-country approach, moreover, would tend to obscure the similarities and resonances that exist across the continent. It is these similarities which underscore the need for a policy to be formulated.

A profound shift is currently taking place in the way that conflict in Africa is viewed. Green (1987) has pointed out the paradox that the economic and human costs of war are immense, yet only in rare instances have they been a matter for serious consideration and policy response. More frequently, war is seen as a short-term problem somehow distinct from the normal run of events. It is interesting, for example, that war and its effects have not been organically linked to the growing problem of food insecurity in Africa. This report is based on a key assumption. That is, that the relationship between conflict and famine in Africa is best sought by examining the specific elements that characterise African famine. In this respect, the report can be seen as a modest attempt to add to the pioneering work of de Waal (1990) who, in adapting Sen's celebrated entitlement theory (1981) to the existing conditions in Africa, has developed a very useful model.

Briefly, de Waal argues that African definitions of famine allow a far wider range of meaning than the term usually denotes in English usage. These meanings can range from poverty, through dearth, to increased mortality and frank starvation. African peoples normally deal with famine by recourse to coping strategies, including a range of practices such as labour migration or the collection of wild foodstuffs, and the management of assets, for example, livestock or craft skills. Coping strategies are the single most important means by which African peoples deal with famine, and in recent famines (for example, in North Sudan in the mid-1980s), they were much more effective than food aid in keeping people alive. Because coping strategies involve a variety of decisions, including that of going hungry in order to preserve assets, the epidemiology of famines is complex; rather than frank starvation, it usually takes the form of disease crises. In Africa, however, there is also a close connection with violence and famine. Conflict disrupts people's coping strategies, or even prevents them operating at all. In these circumstances, especially when such actions are deliberate, frank starvation is often the result.

This report seeks to add to de Waal's model of African famine in three respects. First, by relating Africa's declining economic performance to an emerging new world order. Second, by arguing that the importance of coping strategies is underlined by the growing instability of semisubsistence. Finally, by analysing the logic and political economy of internal conflict in Africa, which make semi-subsistence and coping systems necessary and inevitable targets, it seeks to make an organic connection with famine and food insecurity. In conclusion, it argues that the international system of public welfare that has emerged to relieve this growing problem requires urgent reform if it is to be adequate to the task.