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close this bookWar and Famine in Africa (Oxfam, 1991, 36 p.)
close this folder3 Coping with change
View the document3.1 The intensification of production
View the document3.2 Political overview
View the document3.3 The development of 'Core' and 'Capitalisation Peripheral' areas
View the document3.4 The marginalisation of peripheral groups
View the document3.5 Patterns of social transformation
View the document3.6 The effects on the environment
View the document3.7 Coping with change

3.7 Coping with change

The question of how peripheral groups cope during times of hardship, especially the matter of enviro-economic stress, has attracted increasing attention over the past two or three years (de Waal, 1987; 1990; Swift, 1989). This is an important body of work, since not only does the operation of coping strategies partly define the specificity of African famine, but the research offers a valuable comment on the nature of semi-subsistence and, arguably, complements the focus of food security upon the operation of food systems.

Coping strategies are more complex than relations of market exchange. They denote a range of family-directed or group-directed activities which exploit a stock of assets, some of them of a subsistence nature, at times when food is scarce or expensive. Swift (1989) has divided assets into investments (including education and productive instruments), stores (including food and valuables), and claims (including debt and patronage). Some strategies involve the sale of assets, for example livestock or jewellery. Others exploit movement, for example labour migration to centres of employment, the temporary relocation of families to centres of food availability, the collection of wild foodstuffs, the collection of grass and wood for sale, and so on. The prevalence and operation of coping strategies mean that under enviro-economic famine conditions (i.e. in the absence of conflict), the social trajectory that a famine can take would be unclear to outsiders without an appreciation of the coping decisions involved. Variation in nutritional status by generation and gender, for example, would be a case in point. Due to the operation of this complex calculus, enviro-economic famine deaths are more likely to result from health crises, for example, due to insanitary overcrowding at food centres, rather than from frank starvation (de Waal, 1987).

Two things need to be emphasised about coping strategies in relation to understanding the impact of conflict. In the first place, coping strategies are not only normal, they are the most effective response that African populations can adopt at times of scarcity or expense. It has been estimated (de Waal, 1987) that during the mid-1980s famine in Western Sudan, farmers were able to grow only 35 per cent of their food requirement, while food aid provided only an additional 10 per cent. Apart from going hungry, the balance was met by the resourceful operation of coping strategies. In other words, coping strategies met around half the food requirement and, although the last 10 per cent was of vital importance for many people, the people's own strategies were five times more effective in dealing with the effects of famine than was food aid. There is no reason to believe that these orders of magnitude are not reflected in other enviro-economic famines.

The other major consideration is the crucial importance of market centres for the effective operation of coping strategies (Tigray, 1990). Without local markets (a frequent target in conflict situations) most of the exchange-based strategies cannot work (the sale of assets, petty trade, or casual labour, for example). In addition, a lack of markets suggests an absence of transport, which would reduce the effectiveness of labour migration. No transport means that even food available within the region cannot be traded. Little or no communication with other areas reduces the information upon which coping decisions can be based, and so on. Markets have an important and pervasive influence which cannot be underestimated. In their absence, coping strategies could well be reduced to living off stored food and the collection of wild foodstuffs, provided of course that these options existed. In other words, the effectiveness of coping strategies is greatly reduced.

While the study of coping strategies is important, it should not obscure the fact that the activities involved are either modifications or extensions of what are, essentially, the normal conditions of semi-subsistence (Tigray, October 1989). For example, the migration of families as opposed to men, or the involvement of men in petty trade alongside women, can be seen as stress induced modifications. It is worth making this point, lest readers mistakenly assume that coping strategies, effective as they can be, are immune from the instability that characterises semi-subsistence. Coping strategies are based upon assets, and in surviving famine, assets are consumed. There is a concern, for example that in responding to the famine currently growing in Northern Sudan, peripheral rural groups have not made good their losses in livestock, movable wealth, and so on, since the last famine of the mid-1980s (Sudan, March 1990). In addition, due to intermittent drought, the availability of wild foodstuffs is also restricted. In other words, the trend is for assets to reduce. This process should be seen as part of the wider (shrinking) resource base. Indeed, although there are no figures available, the loss of peripheral group assets as a result of enviro-economic and conflict factors must be its major (if not its largest) component.

Due to the instability of semi-subsistence, coping strategies evolve and change over time. A changing asset-base would suggest that different strategies may prevail in different famines. This variability, however, is a reflection of the long-term crisis of subsidence in Africa