A policy agenda for famine prevention in Africa

Research on which this report is based was initiated in 1986 in the aftermath of severe famines in several African countries in 1985.

Famine in Africa: A Special Case?
Famine the human tragedy that was prevalent throughout the world earlier in this century is nowadays confined to Africa. Countries in the rest of the world have found ways to deal with the problem, but Africa has not. Is this a research issue? Can the lessons for proper policy action that were learned elsewhere be applied in Africa now? Research at IFPRI conducted during the past four years using household surveys in two of the most famine- prone countries of today Sudan and Ethiopia concludes that learning from famine prevention and mitigation efforts in Africa is at least as important as learning from outside experience.

Subsistence-oriented agriculture (which is regressing rather than progressing), constraints in transport infrastructure, poor economic policy, and weak popular participation in governance, especially at the local level and not simply war and drought are the main reasons for the special situation in Africa that makes famine prevention a continuing challenge. These conclusions are summarized in a recent food policy report issued by IFPRI.

Dimensions of the Famine Problem in Ethiopia and Sudan
The number of food-insecure people and the intensity of food insecurity have increased in many African regions during the 1970s and 1980s and under likely scenarios will continue to rise in the 1990s. During the last two decades, economic growth has been zero in Sudan and negative in Ethiopia. Food production in Ethiopia and Sudan in the late 1980s remained below 1979-81 levels and this showed up in decreased food availability. Moreover, the intervals between famine events have become too short to permit reconstruction of the rural economies. Most survivors have been left with fewer assets and with an increasingly risky agricultural-income base that offers little buffer against future crises.

In Ethiopia, the worst of the famines have been concentrated in the structurally food-deficit regions of the north, east, and south. In these regions, net annual incomes are among the lowest in the world (less than US$100 per capita). An estimated half a million people died in these areas during the 1968-75 crisis, and another 1 million people died from 1983 to 1986. In addition, at least 2 million people were officially classified as food insecure in each year during the 1980s, a figure that rose to more than 8 million during peak famine years such as 1985 and 1991.

In Sudan more than half a million people are believed to have died from famine conditions between 1984 and 1990, particularly in the western, north-central, and southern regions. In the south, armed conflicts disrupted effective famine mitigation as they did in Ethiopia. The food situation has worsened again in 1991. Food-insecure people are now found not only in the famine-prone regions, but increasingly in the central and eastern regions as well, and most recently in major towns.

Causes of Famine
The genesis of food crises in this region is a result of the interaction between environmental and socioeconomic factors, in both the short and the long terms, and a failure of policy to deal with them. Those factors are described below.

Drought is a primary agent of famine in Africa today. The agricultural production environment is under increased stress from drought.

In 1984 average rainfall in Ethiopia was 22 percent below the long-term national average; in the worst-affected regions it was more than 50 percent below average. In Sudan, it was more than 50 percent below the long-term average in most of the country.

In both countries drought is strongly associated with food-production decline. A 10 percent decline in rainfall below the long-term average results in a 4.4 percent fall in national production in Ethiopia and a 5 percent fall in Sudan.

Production failures caused by drought, even those lasting several years, do not translate into famine unless other socioeconomic conditions are prevalent. Such conditions are a result of deficiencies in public policy, which impair the growth of households out of poverty. These conditions include (1) lack of improved seeds, fertilizers, other inputs, and training associated with improved agricultural technology; (2) extensive environmental degradation partly because the poor lack alternative production technologies which limits the sustainability of any gains in productivity that are achieved; (3) lack of rural and urban nonagricultural employment opportunities, which limits nonfarm incomes; (4) lack of integrated markets due to poor rural infrastructure, such as roads and transportation facilities, and state-controlled marketing policies that impair incentives for farmers; (5) limited access to education, which contributes to a low labor productivity and rising birth rates; (6) financial markets that do not promote savings and do prevent borrowing in times of need; (7) poor health and sanitation conditions due to lack of services and investment in health infrastructure; and (8) inappropriate macroeconomic policies, including exchange-rate regulations and export taxes that historically have adversely affected the rural economy.

In addition, long-term armed conflicts in Sudan and Ethiopia and a lack of both transparent political decisionmaking processes at central and local government levels and an investigative free media that could generate pressure for needed action against food insecurity are causes of food insecurity and famine.

von Braun, Joachim
Published date: 
International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI)
Series number: 
PDF file: 
application/pdf iconpr1.pdf(1.3MB)