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close this bookFamine, Needs-assessment and Survival Strategies in Africa (Oxfam, 1993, 40 p.)
close this folder2 A case of crying wolf?
View the document(introduction...)
Open this folder and view contents2.1 Some distortions in the process of needs-assessment
View the document2.2 Needs-assessment in some specific countries
View the document2.3 Limited relief
View the document2.4 A real crisis in Africa

2.4 A real crisis in Africa

While outright starvation has been fairly rare, it has not been altogether absent. Further, there is abundant evidence of many kinds of suffering and long-term damage to livelihoods and the environment. While aid agencies and the UN might be accused of 'crying wolf', the crisis has been real enough. What needs emphasising is that the wolf has not always appeared in the form which Western stereotypes about 'famine' lead people to expect. Where are the mass deaths? And where are the mass migrations?' These questions have quite rightly been asked in relation to recent crises in Africa, when Western publics were told that 'millions faced starvation'.

The evidence tends to suggest that mortality has not occurred on the scale that many were predicting. On the other hand, there are dangers in down-playing mortality too severely. There are also incentives for doing so. One senior agency worker suggested that while 'donors want blood' at the time when appeals are being made (that is, they want to hear endorsements that lives are on the line), by contrast, after a crisis has past its peak (and relief, typically, has been minimal), donors seek to down-play the incidence of mortality: the relief was inadequate, but this did not really matter because there was no real crisis in the first place. In fact, it can be very dangerous to make sweeping statements about how many people did or did not die in a particular crisis, as Ken Wilson, of the Oxford-based Refugee Studies Programme, emphasizes. Mortality in a famine may often be very patchy, and it may be largely invisible if people remain in their home villages.

Largely anecdotal evidence suggests that mortality has been significant in some areas, though not on anything like the scale of Ethiopia in 1984-85. Moreover, there has been significant mass migration in some areas. And there is evidence of alarming levels of malnutrition. The picture is a vary variable one. In Niassa province, in the far north of Mozambique, Oxfam representatives report that little evidence of increased malnutrition or mortality has been reported there, despite the fact that relief del*eries had by no means matched the level of needs that was assessed, and that diversion of relief supplies was significant. (Representatives acknowledge that mortality records are not kept.)

On the other hand, there is some evidence of very patchy elevated mortality, notably in Mozambique's Zambezia province, in recent years, Wilson reports. Thousands died in government centres in Zambezia province in 1990, in particular. Administrat*e and political obstacles to relief were significant, and there was a certain feeling among agencies that the government had compelled people to go to government-held towns, and they were reluctant to provide assistance in these circumstances. Many were fed up with emergency interventions, preferring development interventions. A major exception was World Vision, which saved a lot of lives. Oxfam field staff in Mozambique reported increases in mortality, malnutrition and disease rates over the period 1989-91, notably in areas where the government had regained control from Renamo forces. Forced removals of people led to overcrowding in camps where relief assistance was inadequate. One Oxfam worker reported that 'In some camps the nutritional deterioration was drastic', particularly among young children.

A 1990 UN/Government of Mozambique report noted:

Food availability and distribution during the 1989-90 appeal year was considerably below the requirements, and as a consequence there has been a notable increase in malnutrition nation-wide.

Low levels of pledges of market food aid, and for logistics, had led to increased malnutrition among large sections of the population. By mid-November 1989, acute food shortages were reported in Inhambane, Zambezia and Nampula:

The intended reactivation of the market network in rural areas has been severely restricted, in part owing to shortfalls in stock levels.

Pledges were only 56 per cent of cereal needs and 26 per cent of non-cereal needs. A December 1990 Government of Mozambique/lJN report noted:

A comprehensive study within 24 districts of Inhambane, Tete, Zambezia, Nampula and Niassa, finalized in July, showed an average low birth-weight of 26 per cent and chronic malnutrition (low height-for-age) of 53 per cent among children under three years. Cities and urban centres are excluded from free food distribution, but as urban poverty is increasing, urban nutritional indicators are worsening. A survey made in July in Tete city shows the level of acute malnutrition to be 12 per cent.... A recent nutritional survey, carried out in Zambezia (Murrua) in mid-October, showed acute malnutrition in 43 per cent of children under five. Another such situation in Mugulama (also in Zambezia province) in April found acute malnutrition rates of 20 per cent.

In Angola, anecdotal evidence suggests significant numbers of deaths occurred during the emergency there. There have also been substantial migrations of people to urban areas in search of food. Many of these people were in very poor condition. Increases in the level of malnutrition among children arriving in Huila, Cubal and Kaluquembe have been observed.

In Darfur, Sudan, in 1991, most people remained in their villages, where there are no proper records kept of mortality and disease. However, village leaders in Kebkabiya area council reported mortality at significantly higher levels, rising from an average of one death per village council in July 1991 to seven deaths per village council in September. Despite the limitations of such data, if the figures are extrapolated for the whole of North Darfur, they imply tens of thousands of deaths in the three months of July to September alone. Save the Children Fund officials say they are aware of clear excess mortality in certain parts of Darfur in 1991. Levels of malnutrition (below 80 per cent weight-forheight) of between 19 and 25 per cent were found in parts of North Darfur. Mass outmigration was not observed. Yet this may indicate a learning of lessons from 1984-85, rather than the absence of a crisis. In the earlier famine, migration did not necessarily bring access to food, whilst exposing people to a variety of major health risks. John Seaman of Save the Children Fund said: 'Memories of Nyala and Geneina in 1985 are fresh in people's minds. They don't want to do it again.'

The position appears to have been rather different in the Red Sea Hills area of northeastern Sudan. Many people are reported to have stayed in their home villages in 1984 in the hope that good rains would fall. It is reported that when the rains failed, this strategy increased the loss of human life during the famine. This experience appears to have encouraged many Beja to migrate at a relatively early stage in 1990. Another very significant factor was that by this time many households had lost almost all their animals. Large-scale migration, first by men and then by women and children, to major urban areas of Red Sea Hills has been observed. People also moved en masse to the side of the road between Port Sudan and Khartoum, where relief was being distributed. An Oxfam survey in the Red Sea Hills area in August 1991 found 6.6 per cent of rural people were severely malnourished, while 20.9 per cent were moderately malnourished. In the major urban centres of Port Sudan and Halayib, malnutrition rates had risen since 1990. This was attributed to the large numbers of people who had migrated there from Arbaat area. Malnutrition-related diseases have been widespread.