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

2.1.2 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.