Food insecurity: southern Africa's silent crisis

Without political will and action, nothing will come of development plans to curb SADC's growing food insecurity

The AU has declared 2014 to be the ‘Year of Agriculture and Food Security.’ Alas, food insecurity is not a new phenomenon in southern Africa; it is a chronic problem. In 2012, United Nations (UN) Deputy Humanitarian Chief Catherine Bragg reported that southern Africa is facing ‘a silent food insecurity emergency.’ A year later, the 2013 SADC Regional Vulnerability Assessment reported that an estimated 14 million people out of a total population of 277 million are food insecure, which represented an increase of 16% from 12 million in 2012.

The Southern African Development Community (SADC) region is largely seen as peaceful, developing and relatively democratic, but the undeniable reality is that southern Africa is unable to uphold and protect one of the most basic human rights; the right to food. This failure also undermines human security and development in the region.

Despite numerous interventions, this year will again see millions of SADC citizens remaining vulnerable to hunger. The food crisis in southern Africa also slows down progress in attaining the UN’s Millennium Developmental Goals (MDGs), such as halving the number of hungry people, achieving universal primary education, reducing child mortality rates, improving maternal health and ensuring environmental sustainability before 2015. The MDG report of 2013 highlights the correlation between hunger and poverty.

This year will again see millions of SADC citizens remaining vulnerable to hunger

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) recognises five southern African countries with food security challenges, namely Angola, Madagascar, Malawi, Namibia and Zimbabwe. In countries such as Namibia, governments are trying to adopt drastic measures to address food insecurity. In May last year, Namibian President Hifikepunye Pohamba declared a state of emergency in the country following insufficient rainfall for agricultural production. By July 2013, 780 000 people in the country, out of a total population of 2.1 million, were food insecure.

In Zimbabwe, low incomes and high cereal prices have severely limited people’s access to food, especially in the southern provinces. In July last year, the Zimbabwe Vulnerability Assessment Committee estimated that 2.21 million people out of a total population of 13.1 million were affected by food insecurity: a 32% increase from the previous year. In Malawi, 1.5 million people were found to be food insecure and in Madagascar 3.9 million people.

Some SADC countries have formulated policies and poverty-reduction strategies to address food insecurity, including early-warning units that are meant to flag crisis areas. Despite these commitments, what is missing is the implementation process.

The underlying causes of food insecurity are well documented and varied. They include disruptive government policies, social inequalities, restricted access to land and water resources, poor agricultural sectors and rural infrastructure, and the negative impact of climate change. Other global factors also play a role, for instance distorted trade practices and food price hikes.

The impact of the food crisis is especially pronounced among the most vulnerable members of the population: women and children. Many children have been forced to drop out of school, with some suffering from stunted development, which is a sign of chronic food malnutrition. According to UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) 26 million, 40% of children under the age of five years who are suffering from stunting are from eastern and southern Africa.

Meanwhile, gender inequality continues to exclude women from economic participation, especially in terms of access to and control of land. Although women are the major agricultural producers in the region, their access to food is therefore limited. Analysts believe that granting women equal access to resources, including land, could reduce hunger globally.

The food crisis also puts pressure on the HIV/Aids epidemic, and a prolonged food crisis can become a driver of conflict

The food crisis also puts more pressure on fighting the pervasive HIV/Aids epidemic in the region. Furthermore, a prolonged food crisis can become a driver of conflict. So, what will SADC do to step up efforts in addressing food insecurity?

SADC has made a Declaration on Agriculture and Food Security to facilitate the commitment of member states in improving access to food, along with a strategic framework called the Regional Indicative Strategic Development Plan (RISDP) for the period from 2010 to 2015. The RISDP shares key goals and targets for addressing poverty, food insecurity and hunger issues with the African Union’s (AU) Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP) of 2003, as well as the MDG of halving the number of hungry people before 2015.

There is also the SADC Regional Agricultural Policy that aims to guide, promote and support actions at regional and national levels in the agricultural sector to achieve the SADC Common Agenda. Although this policy is yet to be adopted by member states, it is close to finalisation.

It is, however, of great concern that many southern African countries currently affected by the food crisis remain without set policies. A starting point may be the full implementation of the CAADP. Only six southern African countries have actively participated in this initiative thus far, namely Malawi, Swaziland, Mozambique, Tanzania and the Seychelles.

Beyond declarations and recognitions, it is important that governments in the region demonstrate political will to adopt rights-based and coherent policy responses to ensure food security and protect vulnerable people. These policies should recognise food security as a developmental issue that requires strengthening of all political, economic and social institutions. There is also a need for donor assistance for SADC in terms of policy implementation, prevention processes and sustainable solutions. Coordinated and coherent responses at the national, regional and international levels are therefore urgently warranted.

Gwinyayi Dzinesa, Senior Researcher and Sipiwe Sangqu, Intern, Conflict Prevention and Risk Analysis Division, ISS Pretoria


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