‘Amid a multitude of projects, no plan is devised.’
Publius Syrus, 1st century BC
An efficient system of famine prediction can provide more notice of impending disaster; however, the underlying fragility of Africa means that the international community, more particularly African communities themselves, must expect further breakdowns of the food supply. Community self-reliance should be the ambition, but for a long time the economic vulnerability of so many Africans to setbacks from the weather and other causes means that externally provided relief will have a role. As we write, nine of the twenty famine-affected countries in Africa, Angola, Burkina Faso, Chad, Ethiopia, Mali, Mauritania, Mozambique, Niger and Sudan required the essential life support systems of major international relief operations. Without such interventions millions of lives were at risk. Eleven other countries also required extra food and other more limited types of assistance.
Relief has traditionally been seen as a stop-gap to give communities time while they recover after a disaster. Its short-term goals make it fundamentally different from development assistance. Development reduces the risk of disaster by alleviating poverty. But for a long time relief, in the classic sense, was not seen as doing more than putting the damage right after a disaster. It had no aspirations to forge long-term change.
So while relief is a matter of food, blankets, medical care and other temporary help to bridge the period during which people cannot help themselves, development aid is such things as farms, clinics, roads, schools and the services which go with them.
Many agencies, which do not have a clear mandate to work either solely in relief or in development, have agonized over how to divide their energies between the two. In rural communities as far apart as Burkina Faso and Vietnam, variations of a proverb which make this point can be found: give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; give him a fishing net and you feed him for life.
The inadequacy of early warning, coupled, in some cases, with a lack of political will to respond effectively until famine has burst in full force, means that essential time is lost for the phase which precedes full scale relief: containment.
The longer governments and the international community wait to respond the greater the irreversible damage and the cost. This is not only in lives lost but in the dislocation and separation of the victims from their means of livelihood. If no relief is forthcoming in their home villages, famine victims migrate. Once they have done so the economic, and sometimes the political, difficulties of reconnecting them to their former lives are multiplied.
At the containment stage, prompt action in their home areas can prevent the migration. We discuss later the political constraints on this. Here we would just note that the mandate and operations of the relief agencies militate against acting at this stage. Large inter-governmental agencies, frequently the only ones with the clout to be able to intervene at the village level before a famine is officially acknowledged, are often able to move only when the visible signs of famine provide the necessary pretext.
Pre-emptive action is politically more difficult than reactive ways of dealing with crisis. As we argue in the next chapter, food shortage turns to famine mainly because, in the absence of assistance, people lose the purchasing power to buy food.
An early intervention to restore that purchasing power by giving victims cash can avert widespread starvation. The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), following the lead of a number of voluntary agencies, used such a pilot scheme to some effect in Ethiopia in 1984. It works because, as we argued in the last chapter, famine is usually localized. If the victims have money to spend, food will, in many instances, be drawn into the area where there is a shortage. But handing out money goes against the grain of relief assistance. Too many agencies still feel more comfortable with massive food aid operations. So the opportunity for more discreet, effective and earlier intervention is lost. Relief starts when the food trucks roll.
As long as relief is not linked to long-term development, thoughtful people will question its usefulness. Whereas the planning cycle of development projects can take years, with each step in implementation painstakingly prepared, relief by its very nature demands instant action and quick judgment. It is more visible but also more ephemeral. At best it is a band-aid. Or at least that is a popular estimate of it. In fact, despite a high profile, relief accounts for a small part of most donor governments’ aid budgets.
But is the concept of relief as predominantly a band-aid an accurate one? Some think not. Agencies are starting to see relief, not just as a distraction from their main development work, but also as an opportunity. The Chinese word for disaster means both danger and opportunity. Disaster strikes at, and exposes the vulnerability of, those the aid agencies should most want to reach the poorest. With the disruption of disaster, there is an opening to reach where it is ordinarily hard to get. Custom and hierarchy, often barriers between outside helpers and the most vulnerable, may be forced aside for the duration of a disaster.
The famine in Africa demonstrates another fact about disasters and their aftermath. Things do not return to where they were before. Relief operations, whatever they aspire to be, are not a patching up of the shattered past. The past is lost. A famine leaves lasting changes in the economic balance of power within society. It makes the poor poorer and the rich richer. Famines have often led to African herdsmen having to sell their livestock to absentee owners. As poor people sell at a low price every thing they have in order to survive, somebody is getting richer.
Famine also changes the demographic map; it makes people move. So relief aid is an intervention in a situation of upheaval and intense change. The notion that it can somehow be neutral and bring about a return to the previous social configuration is wrong. Africa will not be the same as it was in 1983 when this round of famine is at an end. Wealth differentials will have increased and millions of people will have moved. Relief aid may mitigate some of the effects, but it will not restore the status quo.
Vast numbers of people, mostly illiterate, who have often lived outside the reach of government and modern services, are thrown into contact with, and dependence on, the outside world. Drought forces them to move, forsake old homes, meet new people, confront new choices. Ironically, in their misery, these people may land on the first rung of non-subsistence life. At the same time, their economic position, and capacity for self-sufficiency, become more marginal than ever. This is the context into which the relief worker steps. It is obviously one of opportunity and risk. The present structure of relief acknowledges little of this. The relief community seeks to be judged on the technocratic standard of its efficiency in delivering emergency supplies, not on its role as social engineer.
The main relief commodity is food. It is also the most difficult to handle both in the sense of transportation but also in its impact on those it is supposed to help. United Nations estimates of emergency food requirements in Africa have climbed ever higher during the famine. By March 1985 they were seven million tonnes. Taken together with commercial imports and non-emergency food aid (which in 1982 amounted to 9.25 million tonnes) it means that about two in every five Africans in the sub-Saharan countries are living on foreign food in 1985.
The experience of food aid, however, is that it creates a dependence on outside sources of food, both by changing tastes and by undermining the price of local food, thereby discouraging production. There is no doubt that it is a two-edged weapon and that it can very quickly contribute to the problem of hunger that it seeks to ameliorate. The danger that emergency food aid will be habit -forming is particularly great when the warehouses in the West are bursting with surplus food that government subsidies have encouraged farmers to grow. The food has to be put somewhere. The fortunate convergence of the opposite needs of donors and recipients could quickly become a permanent snare. Already as food aid is pumped in, the definition of emergency needs is becoming blurred. Too much food going into countries now recovering from famine will not assist recovery. Rather it may well retard it.
The food aid debate is not a new one. Briefly put, on the one side are those who argue that many developing countries are not presently growing enough to feed their populations and that therefore the provision of surplus Western food must reduce malnutrition. Because it is surplus to Western needs it will be provided, whereas extra money for the developing countries, which food-aid critics demand instead, would not be. So it allows a country to save precious foreign exchange which would otherwise have to be used to finance commercial food imports.
On the other side, the critics argue that it provides a respectable cover for dumping surplus food to keep prices high at home while making the recipient country’s own food production uneconomic. How can a local producer compete against free foreign food?
In fact most food aid is usually not sold free. Rather the recipient government sells it and is expected to use the local currency funds that it earns from this for development work. As Western grains in surplus may not coincide with local tastes (for example, spare rice may initially appear a funny gift to a sorghum-eating African country), new tastes take hold.
As a consequence in dry countries, which have tended traditionally to grow sorghum and millet because they need less rain, the phenomenon emerges of city folk who develop an appetite for wheat or rice.
As countries get richer they get less food aid, but in many cases turn to importing food. In fact sub-Saharan Africa is the only region of the world where food aid per head has not been declining since the 1960s.
However, whatever the risks, food aid is clearly needed now in Africa. Distribution must be organized, keeping the dangers in mind and an eye on local market conditions. If there is local food available, the food aid must not be allowed to damage the farmer’s price incentive to sell. In other circumstances where merchant-speculators are hoarding food in expectation of even higher prices, flooding the market with food aid to bring prices down can force merchants to sell. So an understanding of the particular market conditions with which food aid is interacting is vital. Also food aid must be distributed as close as possible to the famine victims’ homes. Hence our stress on right of access for relief operations. If, for political reasons, the food has to be distributed on the other side of a national border, it will become a magnet that draws people away from their homes and makes their rehabilitation more difficult. It may even turn them into refugees by default; stranded on the wrong side of a national border they never meant to cross.
From the first, food aid must be properly programmed. Where it is not being sold, it should be tied to well structured food for work programmes. Food should be given in return for work on community projects designed to rehabilitate the agricultural sector and should be phased out as recovery takes place.
Finally, the food donors and African governments must be certain that famine has actually been brought about by a greater than usual food shortage.
As we show in Chapter 4, famine occurs largely because of lack of purchasing power amongst the poor. A crop failure is the probable, although not inevitable, reason for this.
Beyond the question of food itself, relief managers are running up against Africa’s decaying and inadequate infrastructure: ports without sufficient unloading capacity or warehousing; roads which have fallen into disrepair and bridges that are down; in many areas vehicles have to use little more than tracks without hard surfaces which, when the rains do finally come, will be impassable for heavy trucks; a shortage of lorries, spare parts and drivers; not enough fuel; inadequate medical facilities and supplies; insufficient wells and other drinking water sources; and much more. The inadequacy of these basic essentials of a modern economy have held Africa back; and they now handicap the relief operation.
In such circumstances, there is a need for both co ordination and individual initiative. There is frequently confusion and duplication. The problems can only be over come by inspired leadership at all levels of the relief operation. In the field, commitment and innovation are essential counterparts to disciplined teamwork at the national level. Too often there is either co-ordination or initiative, but rarely both. Either co-ordination works and decision-making gets over-centralized, or more often it does not. In which case acts of ingenuity at the field level, to get by and make do, take place. But an essentially chaotic and inefficient use of resources occurs.
Relief work requires planning of a high quality. Barring dramatic responses such as the airlift at the start of the Ethiopian operation (a Hercules can only carry twenty-one tonnes of grain – Ethiopia needs 1.5 million tonnes of food aid) bulk food aid can take up to four months or more to arrive at its destination from the moment of request. Therefore, there must be forward planning of needs. In Africa’s circumstances of poor infrastructure, other elements must be covered in any plan. Sufficient ware housing must be available; trucks must be on hand – large trucks to move the food to regional warehouses and then smaller, perhaps four-wheel drive ones, to move the food across country to the villages and relief camps. Donors must stage their deliveries so that food does not arrive all at once. Ethiopia’s three ports have been working flat out to handle 3,500 tonnes a day, their maximum capacity. In order that ships are not kept waiting for weeks to unload, or alternatively that the ports are not left idle, schedules involving shipments from many different places have to be set up . Even though the biggest individual donors include a country, the United States, and a regional institution, the European Economic Community (EEC), the role of the UN food agency, the World Food Programme (WFP) in co-ordinating these shipments is vital.
Equally, in countries where there are not enough medical staff, it can hardly be left to each agency to decide for itself where it is going to work. There must be careful planning and monitoring of the deployment of all resources, both staff and supplies. In this case a co-ordinating committee of the voluntary agencies, which provide the medical staff, working in conjunction with the national health ministry, may be the best forum for these decisions. Nevertheless, the imperative is the same. In the donor countries, agencies thrive on the inference that they are going off to save the victims of a disaster single-handedly. Yet in the affected country, their effectiveness will depend on their willingness to pool their resources in a disciplined international effort. When people are forced to move in large numbers from their normal homes, their usual coping mechanisms are gone. They cannot be relied on to know for themselves the level of the river they may have become dependent on for their water. Perhaps it will drop suddenly during the dry season. Nor, if they are unused to being part of a large concentration of people, will they necessarily know the health dangers of using the same water source for bathing and drinking. Relief management requires the highest skills at all levels; and very different skills to those of the development worker. The relief worker cannot place the same faith in the local knowledge of those being helped.
There are rarely sufficient experienced staff available in a famine-affected country; relief agencies bring their own staff with them. It is important, however, that their role is limited in duration and that their lines to a national relief command structure are understood. Occasionally, governments attempt to go it alone and demand aid be handed over to· them for distribution. This can hardly be acceptable to agencies because they are accountable to their own publics and because their expertise and experience come to the fore in times of crisis. In this sense, relief is clearly different from development.
Famine is a failure of the development process and requires special measures. African governments need not spurn such external manpower assistance by strenuously insisting on their right to manage their own affairs. That right is not in question. But a famine means their management capacity requires, at least temporarily, to be strengthened. This in no way negates the point; indeed, it confirms that longer term development can only proceed by building up indigenous management capabilities.
Providing a disciplined frame for foreign intervention during a disaster is not easy. It must respect the authority of the national government without skirting round the blunt fact that the international community is there because the national government could not cope. It must also marry disparate, often competing, foreign agencies of varying competence and methods of approach. Often, the agencies are as prickly about their ‘sovereignty’ as any government. In many cases the quality of their staff leaves a lot to be desired.
The United Nations is expected to provide the leadership, or co-ordination role. This is because as an intergovernmental organization with universal membership, it is the most convenient intermediary between the foreign aid community and national governments.
The agencies within the UN system have a wide variety of experience and resources to offer. These include the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the World Health Organization (WHO), the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the Office of the United Nations Disaster Relief Co-ordinator (UNDRO), and the United High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and programmes such as the World Food Programme (WFP) and the UN Development Programme (UNDP). However, there is a serious problem of co-ordination between them.
Ironically, at a time when the UN system as a whole is losing authority because of the general failure of governments to strengthen multilateral co-operation, the humanitarian operations have gained respect, not so much because of their competence, but because bilateral donors and other agencies are forced to recognize that the UN has a unique diplomatic ability to intervene with governments of disaster-affected countries.
A weakness of the UN system, however, is that it has no logistic corps of its own. It has its expert agencies on refugees, food, clean water, or children, but not on trucking, often the key dimension in relief operations and certainly so in the case of Africa today.
WFP, as the UN food-moving agency, is accumulating transport experience. But it is not responsible for moving blankets, water or medicines. Somewhere within the system the UN needs to develop a more integrated transport capacity.
Often, the UN is not able to get in early enough. The best relief operations are those which respond to an early warning system and head off famine. The UN is necessarily reactive because of its inter-governmental character. It is reluctant to go in until it is asked. As long as the member states of the UN seek to limit the scope of global intergovernmental co-operation and insist on the pre-eminence of state prerogatives, the full potential of the UN system cannot be brought into play. Reasoning based on state prerogatives is sometimes used also to stop interventions where a government may clearly be failing to deal with a disaster.
Because the UN meets the cost of its disaster work from voluntary contributions from governments, its initial response is also often limited. Most agencies have emergency funds which they can draw on, but these are relatively small. So UN agencies start late and slow.
African governments did, from 1982 and 1983, become increasingly alarmed by the escalating food crisis and can justifiably argue that their warnings were only partially heeded by the international donor community. They were not the ones who were slow to sound the alarm.
Yet in a number of countries where the crisis was first felt there was only limited access to the areas where the hunger was worst, because the government’s authority was being challenged by armed opponents. The deterioration in food production is not going to be turned round overnight. Therefore the frequency of food crises will not lessen, and unless the UN is able to insist on full access to hungry areas, whatever the prevailing situation, international action to avert famine is likely to be too late.
The UN could and should be given an anticipatory role. On humanitarian matters it can expect greater sympathy from governments than for instance in the complex field of human rights. Yet even the latter has begun to show results in its commitment to the individual. In the area of humanitarian relief, more could be done to ensure that the UN is enabled to enter hungry areas where control is disputed.
Up to 3000 famine victims a day were leaving Northern Ethiopia in the first months of 1985. The UN did its best to help them when they arrived in Sudan. But the objections of the Ethiopians prevented the UN taking assistance to the victims in their home areas before they were forced to start the trek out to dependence on foreign food aid in camps far from home. This was because the Ethiopian government has been locked in a bitter struggle with Eritrean rebels for twenty-three years and with the Tigreans for ten years. The conflict has not let up because of the famine. The UN has been unable to insist on a ceasefire to allow an effective relief operation in the famine hit areas.
In the African famine, the UN has been unable to act as a truly global agency. Its effectiveness would be enhanced if donors would drop their political differences and work together for a humanitarian cause. In Ethiopia, there is practical co-operation in a joint plane and helicopter supply drop to inaccessible mountain areas, organized by the UN and involving donors from East and West. It is an example to emulate.
African countries, which have escaped the drought, obviously do not have much to spare for their less lucky neighbours. Their food position is for the most part only marginally better. And a country like Sudan has been a remarkably generous host to new famine victims from Ethiopia and Chad at the same time that it has a food crisis of its own. The North African countries have given generously. Ghana and others have also contributed to famine relief. However, the non-famine affected countries in Africa have not as a whole been engaged as constructively as they could have been in dealing with the crisis.
The Organization of African Unity (OAU) at its summit in Addis Ababa in 1984 was preoccupied with the famine. Yet the OAU has been unable to play as effective a role as it might have. It does not have the resources, although it has launched its own appeal, for practical assistance. It could provide firmer political backing to international relief efforts. Without real African solidarity to buttress its interventions, the UN is weakened in dealing with individual African governments. Now would be the moment for African leaders as a group to have urged the UN to put people before governments in the race to save lives and to take the food to wherever it was needed.
Given these limits on its authority, any operational weaknesses of the UN are not unsurprising. The Office for Emergency Operations in Africa, established in New York to co-ordinate UN-wide efforts as well as those of the voluntary agencies and other donors, was hurriedly put together in December 1984 when earlier co-ordination efforts were clearly unsatisfactory.
This response was simply ad-hoc. It may work well – such initiatives sometimes have in the past. But it should not be necessary. Where disasters are complex and involve a number of different UN agencies there should be a well tried process, rather than a last-minute patch-up job, for ensuring a co-ordinated response.
This ad-hocracy impinges directly on the incapacity of the UN to move sooner. The Secretary-General appointed a special representative for the African situation a year earlier but it was only in December 1984, two months after BBC television told the rest of the world what the UN had known full well for eighteen months at least, that this emergency operations office was established. Its full-scale international conference on the African famine came in March 1985. By this time the rains had returned to many countries and the others were well into the present famine year.
This is clearly less than Africa or the international community deserves in this moment of crisis. As a bridge between African needs and the desires of those outside who seek to help, the present machinery of international relief needs to be considerably strengthened .
We have argued that relief operations are unavoidable in the foreseeable future. Famine prediction and prevention do not yet offer a convincing alternative and the short-term prospects for food production and further environmental deterioration suggest further food-supply breakdowns. So, although it has less lasting benefit than development assistance, relief is here to stay.
It does, however, offer possibilities. Famines have a profound effect on societies, causing lasting change. Relief can channel some of this change towards progressive improvements. However, relief operations remain inadequately run. The stage at which disasters could be contained is virtually overlooked in favour of delayed but large-scale relief operations.
An opportunity for common action is being overlooked in all this. The criticisms we offer are widely shared both inside African governments and in the UN. If the moment is seized, this famine can provide an opportunity for fresh appraisal and reform. If that can be rescued from the present disaster, there is hope for the future. In the next chapter we show how it is the neglect and the impoverishment of the countryside that has led to famine.