Cover Image
close this bookFamine, Needs-assessment and Survival Strategies in Africa (Oxfam, 1993, 40 p.)
close this folder2 A case of crying wolf?
close this folder2.1 Some distortions in the process of needs-assessment
View the document2.1.1 Estimating production, food availability and population
View the document2.1.2 The 'food balance-sheet' approach
View the document2.1.3 Donor fatigue/scepticism
View the document2.1.4 Gender biases

2.1.1 Estimating production, food availability and population

Appeals for emergency relief in Africa tend to be greatly shaped by annual assessments of food needs that are made by the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). FAO estimates of food needs are obtained by calculating the total quantity of food available for consumption in a country in a given year (allowing for imports, exports, use of food for Animals, seeding, industrial purposes, and losses during storage and transportation, as well as changes in stocks), and then subtracting this figure from the total food consumption needs of the country's population. In performing these calculations, the FAO generally relies heavily on government production estimates, whose methodologies are often not explained.

Difficulties surrounding the assessment of food production in Africa are formidable indeed. African countries are often sparsely populated, with many different climatic zones and cropping systems. Non-cereal crops may be particularly neglected in of ficial estimates. Animals and undomesticated plants are likely to provide a substantial portion of the diet. Non-cereal foods, including tubers, pulses, fruit and fish, may be ignored. Indeed, the neglect of relatively 'invisible' crops such as root crops has a long history. Colonial of ficials in Malawi in the 1940s came to the conclusion that households in one area had a chronic maize deficit, but took no account of sorghum, cassava and root crops (Vaughan).

Aerial photography may underestimate acreage, for example, if two or more crops are planted on the same land. On the other hand, satellite photographs create the danger that weeds like striga will be mistaken for crops, and that areas seen to be green may yet fail to flower and may yield virtually no crop (as happened recently in parts of Eritrea). Significantly, US Department of Agriculture estimates of crop production tend to make the weaknesses and uncertainty in the data more explicit than do FAO estimates. There is an element of false certainty about much of the FAO data.

The origins of the data on losses and uses of food other than for human consumption are not clear. Figures on stocks are likely to be unreliable. Official trade figures may fail to take account of widespread smuggling, and may in any case be inaccurate: one recent study of African trade flows found that a particular country's records of imports and exports to another country rarely bore much relation to the records of these same trade flows that were kept in this second country. Population data are also likely to be inaccurate, not least because regions can hope to gain more government resources by overestimating their populations. Inaccurate production estimates may not simply be the result of chance errors, but also of repeated, and perhaps rational, under-reporting of production by a number of parties. Rural producers may underestimate their own production and resources as a result of a desire to avoid taxation or compulsory government purchase of crops. Many people (at local, regional and national levels) may be influenced by a desire to solicit aid.

It is arguable that the FAO itself has an interest in accepting exaggerated shortfalls in production, since the notion of large-scale food problems in Africa provides much of the justification for the organisation's existence. Aid agencies may have a number of pragmatic reasons of their own for supporting major appeals: at ground level, endorsing UN appeals may give improved access to scarce UN resources like transport and radios; back at headquarters, large-scale emergencies are acknowledged as an important trigger for raising funds. Meanwhile, the consequences—in terms of human suffering—of 'getting it wrong' are likely to be far less grave when needs are overestimated than when they are underestimated.

2.1.2 The 'food balance-sheet' approach

Current international assessments of African food needs rely heavily on the 'food balancesheet' approach, which implicitly portrays regions of African countries as being selfsufficient in grain in 'normal' years. Grain production and grain requirements are typically calculated on a regional basis, and conclusions are drawn about the 'food deficit' in individual regions. When this 'food deficit' is not filled by adequate relief, and yet people still survive, this appears something of a mystery, commonly bringing forth the 'explanation' that people have a range of special survival strategies which they employ in time of famine. However, even in 'normal' years, many regions of Africa would not be expected to produce enough grain for all their needs; such strategies as selling livestock and selling labour, while they may be pursued on a greater scale during time of famine, may well take place year after year. As Sen has argued convincingly, a proper understanding of famine should involve not only examining production but also looking at the means by which people attempt to secure access to whatever food exists. It is important to look at these means both in normal years and in famine years. This kind of perspective is still not fully taken into account in UN emergency appeals.

The idea of the subsistence farmer—producing all his or her needs—loomed large in the British colonial mind, and the idea continues to influence much official thinking on relief and development. Yet the true subsistence farmer appears to be very rare, and he or she is probably also very poor. Vaughan has written in relation to Malawi:

When colonial agricultural of ricers painstakingly calculated the carrying capacity of the land..., they failed to bear in mind the fact that never in the accessible past had villages, let alone households, provided all their needs from their own labour on their own plots of land.

From a detailed study of Wollo, Tigray and Eritrea, de Waal concluded that most of the farming population do not survive by agriculture alone, even in normal years. Livestockfarming, petty trading, and casual labouring were all significant. Reliance on off-farm incomes increased from south to north within Ethiopia and from highlands to lowlands. Pastoralists also depended on trade and casual labour to a considerable extent. A Leeds University team that visited rebel- and government-held areas of Eritrea in 1987 calculated that, even in a 'normal, non-war' year, production of staple foods would be enough to feed the population for only seven to seven-and-a-half months. In a 'normal, war' year, the figure fell to 4.6-4.8 months.

One study of Burkina Faso in 1984 has shown how much greater quantities of food aid were targeted to the Sahelian zone compared with the Sudanian zone, on the basis of the former's lower rainfall and lower yields estimates. Yet people in the Sahelian zone had access to a much wider range of economic opportunities (including trade and large livestock herds) than those in the Sudanian zone, and their purchasing power was significantly greater (Reardon, Matlon and Delgado).

All this is not to say that food balance-sheets are uninformative or unhelpful; it is the excessive reliance on them that is misleading. Some Oxfam field staff have stressed that the food balance-sheet approach, although a blunt instrument, is far from useless, since it provides an early warning of potential problems, it can reflect trends in production, and it may offer some kind of consensus view (at least among officials) about what is happening. Nevertheless, most feel this approach is unhelpful in indicating the actual level of food production, or the numbers of people that are likely to require assistance.

2.1.3 Donor fatigue/scepticism

It is important to distinguish between the processes of needs-assessment that find their way into written UN appeals, and those that are made informally by donors. If donors are sceptical about levels of need in written appeals, if they feel that relief is unlikely to be distributed to the intended beneficiaries, or if they are simply unwilling to allocate major resources to a particular emergency, they may not allocate resources in line with those requested in official appeals. All these factors are likely to influence donors' private assessments of need. In the section of needs-assessment in specific countries, evidence of donor 'fatigue' is presented in relation to Mozambique.

2.1.4 Gender biases

A significant source of bias in needs-assessments—perhaps tending to encourage underestimation of needs in some contexts—is the fact that such assessments are typically made by men. Whether information comes from key informants in central or local government or at village level, it is very likely that the information comes from men. Oxfam's Gender Adviser for Africa and the Middle East, Bridget Walker, offers an example of the distortions this can create. As part of Oxfam's ongoing nutritionalassessment programme in Darfur, Sudan, separate teams of interviewers were used (men interviewing men, mostly village notables, and women interviewing women). It was found that village notables appeared to be overestimating the harvest substantially, whilst women were making much lower estimates. The reasons for this were not clear. It may be that the men interviewed were unrepresentatively wealthy, and relatively unconcerned about harvest shortfalls. Or it may be that they were out of touch with what was going on in the fields. The fact remains that differences in assessments of production were dramatic.

WaLker also notes that there has been some tendency for women to give greater estimates of household needs, including in their definition of the household many people who were on the fringes of the household. By contrast, men have tended to give a more limited definition of the household, including only those people for whom they felt directly responsible. Women's direct involvement with processes of food production and consumption can be contrasted with their habitual exclusion from processes of needsassessment, and constitutes a major weakness in current systems of assessment.