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How many Hok does a poor man have?

By Anna Shotton

Anna Shotton is the Reports Officer and Gender Focal Point on the WFP Southern Sudan Programme. In the past year, she has produced a range of materials on gender issues in food aid in southern Sudan that are available at the WFP offices in Nairobi. Anna wrote this article whilst taking part in WFP's Annual Needs Assessment exercise in southern Sudan this year.

Drying the first crops in Keew

A civil war has been raging in Sudan for over 17 years since 1983 with fighting between the Government of Sudan in the North and various rebel factions in the South. Sudan has the potential of being the "bread basket" of Africa. However, many areas remain food insecure due to a complex set of intertwining factors. These range from aerial and ground attacks in which grain stores are burnt, livestock looted and civilians killed as well as large-scale population displacement due to insecurity, to natural disasters such as drought and floods. Historically southern Sudan has also been marginalised in terms of access to social and economic infrastructure such as schools and health facilities, and roads and industries. WFP has been providing food aid to both the North and South of Sudan through "Operation Lifeline Sudan" since 1989. The latest famine in Sudan was in 1998 where it is thought that over 70,000 people died in the worst affected region of Bahr el Ghazal.

Using proportional piling - a PRA tool

In late September, as WFP's Reports Officer for southern Sudan, I joined a WFP Annual Needs Assessment (ANA) team visiting Keew village in Zeraf Island, in Phou State of Upper Nile. The ANA team were visiting Phou State, at around harvest time, to assess the current food security situation and project food needs for the state for the year to come. Such food needs assessments are carried out in all states and counties of southern Sudan, and together determine how much food aid will be needed in 2001. WFP teams apply Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA) techniques to collect data used to project a food deficit, which is eventually translated into a WFP ration size and target population figure for individual locations in a state or county.


We landed with a bump on the soggy airstrip at Keew. Risper, Senait, Johnson and myself spilled out of the aircraft with our tents, mattresses, food trunks and water for one week. Risper Omondi (Kenyan), Senait Assefa (Ethiopian) and Johnson Thou Mon (Sudanese) are all WFP Assessment Officers who are in charge of projecting food needs in Phou State. Within an hour our tents were pitched in the nearby NGO compound, and the heavens opened. When the rain subsided, I discovered that the inside of my tent had been flooded and that, arguably, there was more to camping than meets the eye.

Johnson, Risper and Senait cross the swamps

We first met with the local representatives of the humanitarian wing (RASS) of the SPDF or Sudan People's Defence Forces, which is the militia group controlling the area. They gave us a brief on the security, socio-political and economic characteristics of Zeraf Island, and together we agreed on a workplan for the days to come. Meetings were also held with the RASS Coordinators for the various sectors such as health, education and livestock, to get an overview of the facilities in Zeraf Island in each sector. As is often the case, limited data are collected by the local officials and much of the information is based on educated guesses. A meeting was held with the chiefs, executive-chiefs and headmen of Zeraf Island, to again get an overview on the food security situation of the area. These traditional leaders were asked to rank the various parishes in the three districts with regard to food security indicators such as crop yields, livestock numbers, security, numbers of internally displaced persons (IDPs) and levels of disease.

Into the villages

Girl collecting Thou

The next few days were spent walking into the nearby villages: Risper was in charge of collecting data on the "better off" and "internally displaced," Senait on the "middle," and Johnson on the "poor" and "very poor" socio-economic groups. We walked through red acacia forests, waded through swamps that were "puddles" according to our RASS counterparts but came up to our thighs, and after another twenty minutes' walk we arrived in the village of Madjang. The counterparts had organised ahead of time, "key informant" groups of six to ten women and men from each of the socio-economic groupings, whom we found already seated under various trees dotted around the village.

After a round of introductions and much handshaking and greetings we started with the "semi-structured interviews." The first part of the session was spent on "wealth ranking" i.e. determining the socio-economic breakdown of the community, the characteristics and the proportion of people in each group, using a PRA tool called "proportional piling". Johnson asked a young girl to pick 100 thou fruits (a popular and highly calorific wild food eaten across southern Sudan, known as lalop in Dinka and thou in Nuer) from a nearby tree. A woman in the group was then asked to divide the pile representing the whole community into the various socio-economic groupings, and in turn sub-divide each group into resident population versus IDPs, and married versus widowed. As is often found in southern Sudan, the IDPs who had fled fighting in the oil-rich areas of Western Upper Nile and recently arrived in Phou State, as well as the widowed, were amongst the most destitute in the community.

Johnson briefs the team on his findings

Each socio-economic group was then asked about its ability to meet its food needs this year, and requested to project the food security situation in the coming year. Detailed questions were asked about each food source accessible by that particular socio-economic group, to build up a picture of the percentage contribution of that food source to total food needs, as well as when during the year each food source is available. For an important food source for the "poor" and "very poor", such as thou, questions need to be asked, like: "Is thou available in the area? If so, when do you start collecting the fruit, and when do you stop? How many times do you collect thou in one week? Who collects it? How much do you collect in one trip?" Information on crop growth and harvest size is also cross-checked by observing the crops growing in the fields and looking at what is in people's grain stores.

Field analysis

Back at the NGO compound, the ANA team briefed each other on their individual findings and "triangulated" or cross-checked the data using different sources. For each food source, the team calculated its percentage contribution to the annual, kilocalorie (kcal) needs of a household of 6 persons, by season. The percentage of the total, annual food needs of a household that was not covered represents the food deficit for the coming year faced by this socio-economic group. This exercise is repeated for all socio-economic groups, and in 3-4 locations in a state/county. The average of the findings across the locations now becomes the food deficit for that area. These data are then sent to WFP's base in Lokichoggio, northern Kenya for the next level of analysis by the Technical Support Unit (TSU) Food Security Advisor and Officers.

Lokichoggio analysis

On receipt of the field data, WFP's food economy experts in Lokichoggio review the findings, vet them for mathematical and other errors and cross-check them against other information available for a particular state/county. The TSU scrutinises the food deficits by season and explores possible scenarios for the food deficit being met by expanding on food sources other than food aid. Food aid is therefore only recommended where the food deficit can't be met, causing under nutrition, or can only be met by expanding on food sources that in the long-term will harm the household's longer-term food security, such as the slaughter of the household's last remaining cow. Although factors such as the future security situation cannot be predicted with accuracy, general trends are taken into account before settling on a final food security scenario for a state/county for the year ahead as well as the total amount of food aid recommended for that area.

The seasonality of the food deficit is important: only in extreme cases do people face food shortages throughout the entire year. For instance, if the food deficit coincides only with the 'hunger gap' months of May, June and July, then WFP will divide up the annual food allocation for the area into three and deliver it during those months. Depending on the ranking of the food needs within the state/county, certain locations may receive more food aid than others. Emphasis is often placed on delivering food aid during the cultivation season or just before to boost energy levels and therefore productivity, which in turn should increase future crop yields.

After the TSU recommends ration sizes and targeted beneficiary figures for all food deficit areas of southern Sudan, a food delivery plan is drawn up. Whether the amount of food recommended is actually distributed on the ground as planned depends on a variety of factors. The most common challenges that WFP faces when implementing its food distribution plans include insecurity, denial of flight clearance and poor weather conditions which prevent access to beneficiaries as well as temporary shortages of food aid in WFP's stores depending on the timing and extent of donor contributions.


Johnson tuned the radio to the WFP frequency in Lokichoggio to hear "Kilo Whiskey [the call-sign for Keew]...your pick up will be not be on figure 28 but on figure 29." We looked up at the gathering clouds overhead: the rains might hold off for another day but certainly not two. The possibility of getting stuck in Keew for an undefined length of time was staring us in the face. That night it rained but luckily for not too long and the airstrip the next morning was declared "wet but landable."

The Caravan flew low over the airstrip several times to examine the surface, and declared "prepare for landing." The plane touched down, skidded then slowed to a halt. We loaded our stuff onto the plane and got ready for take-off. The plane taxied up the runway and made to turn... that's when the wheels got stuck in the mud. A boy was sent to get a rope and a shovel, and two hours later, after much pulling and digging, the show was back on the road. Airborne at last and an iced, mango drink in Lokichoggio in sight, I settled back into my seat and closed my eyes.


Keew is home to the Thiaang sub-clan of the Laak Nuer. Zeraf Island, has both high and low-lands, and is encircled by the Zeraf river to the east and the Nile to the west. People in this area tend to survive on livestock, fishing, crops and wild foods. The island is swampy and is notorious for its malarial mosquitoes. Zeraf Island is subject to interclan fighting and raids from a Government of Sudan-backed militia working out of Phom town north of the island.


WFP assessment teams use the Household Food Economy Analysis (HFEA) approach, developed by Save the Children (UK), as a framework for understanding data collected in the field. HFEA aims to identify and quantify a household's means of access to all the food sources available in an area. The idea is that you need to understand how families gain access to food in 'normal' times, before you can analyse the effects of external shocks on access to food in a 'bad' year. When 'shocks' (crop failure, displacement, flooding etc.) occur, the focus of analysis is to determine the impact and consequences of that shock on the various sources of food. Will traditional coping mechanisms meet the new needs and at what cost? If a household cannot meet the new needs created by such 'shocks', then the analysis should show the size and seasonality of the food deficit and which groups are most affected.

WFP has been using food economy analysis in southern Sudan since 1994 to determine food needs, highlight potential emergencies ahead of time and prioritise food aid allocations between regions. The framework is particularly helpful in a complex and fluid environment such as southern Sudan, where 'official' statistics are largely absent. Over 55 WFP, NGO, humanitarian counterpart and donor representatives are participating in field assessments in this year's ANA (Annual Needs Assessment).


One middle-income household of 6 persons in Madjang village claimed to collect one small gau gau (a calabash measurement of 3 kg) of thou kernels per week for five months of the year from December to April. This means that the household collected 3 kg x 4.3 weeks/month x 5 months/year = 64.5 kg of thou kernels per year. If 0.36 kg of thou kernels provides 2,100 kcal and there are 2,190 'food days' per year in a household of 6 persons (6 persons x 365 days/year), then thou kernels contribute 8% of a household of 6 persons' annual food needs in this socio-economic group [(64.5 kg/0.36)/2,190) x 100 = 8%].


Table 1: Food deficit in Twic County, Bahr el Ghazal - ANA 1999
Poorest Poor Middle Better off
% Population 15-25% 35-35% 20-25% 15-20%
Crops (grain) 0-10% 5-15% 10-15% 20-25%
Other crops 15-20% 15-25% 15-25% 15-20%
Livestock - Milk 0 0-10% 5-15% 15-25%
Livestock - Meat 0 0 5-10% 5-15%
Fish 15-25% 15-25% 20-30% 20-30%
Wild Foods/honey 30-35% 30-35% 15-20% 5-15%
Barter 0-10% 0-10% 0 0
Labour 5-10% 5-10% 0 0
Kinship 0-10% 0-10% 0 0
Purchase 0-5% 0-5% 5-15% 5-15%
Total needs covered 90-100% 105-110% 100-115% 110-120%
Total needs deficit 0-10%

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Reference this page

Anna Shotton (). How many Hok does a poor man have?. Field Exchange 11, December 2000. p7.



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