|Drought and Famine (Department of Humanitarian Affairs/United Nations Disaster Relief Office - United Nations Development Programme , 1994, 53 p.)|
|PART 2 Famine|
Vulnerability to famine is a more complex notion than vulnerability to earthquakes or flooding where the primary concerns are technical i.e. geological, geomorphological, engineering/structural design rather than social and economic. Inevitably, the factors determining the vulnerability of a society to famine vary considerably and there is a difference between the vulnerability of societies and households. Also vulnerability varies between geographical areas, social class and age. However, common factors are likely to include:
· a low income country with a high proportion of very poor people
· food production subject to wide climatic or pest-related fluctuations
· internal and external trade poorly developed
· the media restricted and criticism of the government not tolerated
· limited options for individuals/households to cope with the food crisis
Many of these factors overlap and poverty automatically increases vulnerability. Yet, despite these factors, individuals in highly vulnerable situations demonstrate remarkable resilience and ingenuity and utilize a wide range of responses to preserve themselves and their livelihoods.
Commonly employed responses or coping strategies include seeking off-farm employment, borrowing from neighbors, going into debt, altering consumption patterns such as switching to cheaper foods or gathering locally available wild food, selling off assets such as land, furniture, or animals to raise cash to purchase food, or migrating to relief camps or out of the affected area. The particular responses adopted vary widely as a result of the different causal factors involved in famines, the nature of the local food production and consumption systems, cultural factors, the nature of the households affected, local market conditions and the absence or presence of relief programs. However, studies of past famines reveal certain patterns in the coping responses chosen (see Box 6).
On the basis of documented responses to African famines, Corbett (1989) suggests that there is a simple three stage sequence in coping strategies and argues that this model may provide a useful tool for analyzing the economic behavior of households prior to and during famines in Africa.
Stage One: Insurance mechanisms
· changes in cropping and planting practices
Stage Two: Disposal of productive assets
· sale of livestock
Stage Three: Destitution
· distress migration
The importance of acknowledging and supporting the capacity of vulnerable groups to cope with distress conditions should not be understated because an understanding of coping strategies can be very helpful to those involved in designing the various components of relief programs. When relief assistance is designed without taking these capacities into consideration the assistance can often undermine existing capacity and leave those intended to be helped worse off than before. Even in the worst of conditions, individuals have skills and knowledge, social and organizational capacities, and strength of will which should be supported and encouraged if long term vulnerability is to be reduced. When victims of famines are seen as helpless without skills, energy, and motivation, relief programs will ignore local strengths and result in long term dependencies. (Anderson and Woodrow, 1991).
Patterns of coping strategies are receiving increased attention in the hope that they may provide an indication of the severity of the situation and the likely length of time before significant increases in morbidity and mortality occur. However, the research is still at an early stage and there are indications that coping strategies may be so time and location specific as to be of only limited use to those involved in macro decisions relating to the relief program.
For instance, a study by Reily (1990) of a group of agro-pastoralists in North Kordofan Province in Sudan found that the lack of transport animals within certain households prevented these households from engaging in petty trading, while the absence of adult males herding camels in search of better pasture necessitated early long-distance migration by female heads of households in search of employment. Furthermore, the groups failure to recover from previous famines and/or a process of chronic impoverishment had considerably altered their coping strategies over time. Thus, there would appear to be considerable variation of strategies employed and a changing sequence of strategies, even over a short period. This makes it difficult to interpret the significance of particular strategies being employed, particularly for those located away from the affected area such as in central government offices and donor organizations.
Q. Why is it important to develop the capacities and support the coping strategies of famine victims?
Relief programs should be designed to promote long-term development and reduce vulnerability. These goals require that local social, political and cultural capacities be strengthened.