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Evolution of a Crisis: a Save the Children UK perspective

By Mark Wright

Mark Wright was the Save the Children Programme Officer for Southern Africa from November 2000 to November 2002.

This article details Save the Children UK's (SC UK) perception of the build up to the Southern Africa crisis and charts key moments in the response of the international humanitarian community1. Largely using Malawi and Zimbabwe as case studies, it looks at the roles of the different actors and appraises how successfully they fulfilled their responsibilities in responding to the situation. The work of SC UK during this crisis, particularly in the realm of advocacy, is highlighted. The contributions of Daniel Collison, Deborah Crowe, Gary Sawdon and Anna Taylor, Save the Children UK, in compiling this article is gratefully acknowledged.


In September 2002, Southern Africa was in the throes of an acute humanitarian crisis that was having countrywide impacts in Angola, Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe, as well as affecting significant populations in Lesotho, Mozambique and Swaziland. Across the entire region, it was estimated that 7.5 million people (plus a further 1.9 million in Angola) required immediate food assistance, a figure anticipated to rise to 16.3 million between January and March 2003. Of those in need, at least 60% were under the age of 18 years.

Southern Africa had suffered from erratic weather over the previous two seasons such that, by the beginning of the current crisis, many poorer farmers had already exhausted their coping strategies. In addition to adverse weather conditions, with drought, erratic rains, floods and tornadoes over successive years causing falls in production, other underlying factors had drastically destabilised food security. These included political instability in Zimbabwe and a fragile peace in Angola, poor macro-economic performance in all countries in the region, inappropriate government policies, and the HIV/AIDS pandemic.

In October 2001, SC UK conducted a training session in the SC UK Household Economy Approach (HEA) methodology in Malawi. This was carried out in several Food Economy Zones that overlapped those districts (Mchinji and Salima) where SC UK is operational. The results of this exercise suggested that the population was facing a potentially significant food shortfall, well before the next harvest in March 2003 and even in Mchinji district which is traditionally a bread basket area. In response, SC UK hosted a donor meeting in Lilongwe in November 2001, not only to alert interested parties but also to try and instigate a response strategy. The warning was not accepted and many maintained that the situation was less serious than was being described. Around the same time, the FEWSnet2 was predicting some increased vulnerability but felt that, whilst maize was in short supply, overall food supply was adequate once root crops were taken into consideration.

Survey support

To support the SC UK argument, nutrition surveys were carried out in December 2001, which found global acute malnutrition rates of 11.8% and 9.3% in Mchinji and Salima, respectively. In themselves, these figures did not suggest a crisis. However, in light of the HEA data and considering the time of year (at least 3 months before harvest), they were very serious findings. Again, the response from donors was unenthusiastic. In contrast, a HEA survey in Zimbabwe in May 2001, with no supporting anthropometric data, attracted funding from the Department for International Development (DFID) for a food intervention over the period September 2001 to April 2002. This was an unusual case in that the intervention was designed specifically to support livelihoods rather than combat hunger per se. This differentiated response does show apparent inconsistencies in the DFID approach to the crisis in these two countries.

SC UK began intensive lobbying of donors and the international community to support a wide-scale intervention in Malawi. Anecdotal evidence strongly suggested that the situation was deteriorating rapidly, a situation compounded by a massive increase in maize prices of 400%. To quantify the impact on the population, SC UK conducted a follow-up nutrition survey in late February 2002. This found that global acute malnutrition rates had increased to 12.5% in Mchinji and to 19% in Salima. That such deterioration had taken place in the space of only ten weeks was indicative of the seriousness of the situation.

By February 2002 it became clear that the food shortage was a regional issue and was not just restricted to individual countries. The Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) issued a Special Alert warning of 4 million Africans being at risk, and highlighted Malawi, Zimbabwe and Zambia as being the most affected. However, national governments were slow to admit that the problems were serious. Malawi did not declare a State of Emergency until the 27th February 2002, while Zimbabwe delayed declaration until the 26 April 2002.

Within the UK, international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) were independently carrying out investigations into the extent of the problem within their own operational areas. SC UK called a co-ordination meeting in early April 2002, both to promote information sharing amongst active NGOs and to facilitate the development of a common position on the scale and needs of the crisis. This led to the development of a joint position paper that was presented by the British Overseas Agencies Group (BOAG) to the UK Secretary of State for International Development.

Chronology of events
Date Key events
Oct 2001 HEA assessment identifies food shortfall in areas of Malawi where SC UK operational
Nov 2001 SC UK hosts donor meeting in Lilongwe to highlight needs
Dec 2001 Nutrition surveys in two districts support HEA findings Intensive lobbying of donors and agencies
Feb 2002 Repeat surveys show deterioration in nutritional status FAO special alert for region BOAG group position paper DFID first donor to fund intervention
Mar 2002 Regional working group formed
Apr 2002 Angolan ceasefire and access to population
Apr-May 2002 Crop and food supply assessment missions to seven countries
June 2002 Figures established for population in need and predicted food shortfall
Sept 2002 Continued shortfall in WFP funding, targeting and supply Limited information on national government provisions Onus on NGOs to establish parallel food pipelines
Abbreviations: HEA (Household Economy Approach), FAO (Food and Agriculture Organisation), BOAG (British Overseas Advisory Group), DFID (Department for International Development), WFP (World Food Programme), NGO (Non-governmental organisation)


Recognition of a crisis

The prospect of a massive food shortage was now becoming more widely accepted.

DFID agreed to fund a one-month SC UK food aid intervention in Mchinji - the first donor to respond to the food situation. The World Food Programme (WFP) and FAO were also increasingly concerned and, at the Inter-Agency Standing Committee Policy Working Group meeting in March 2002, invited SC UK to present on the regional food situation. As a result of this meeting, and at the behest of WFP, a working group was formed. Tasked with coordinating the Crop and Food Supply Assessment missions to the region, the group was charged with a wider remit than normal. In addition to gathering routine information on food supply, there was an explicit requirement to collect data on access to food, and vulnerability issues. The missions in each of the seven countries (Angola, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe) took place throughout April and May 2002, and SC UK participated in both the Malawi and Zimbabwe missions. Assessment findings were reported to a multi-agency meeting on the 6-7 June 2002. Referring to three phases of activity between June 2002 and April 2003, the meeting established agreed figures for the food requirements of the region and generated indicative figures of the populations in need.

Continuing food shortfall

Malawi, Salima district, May 2002. Large distribution to about 1,000 beneficiaries.

The situation was now described as a "crisis of enormous dimensions". It was agreed that over 12 million people in six countries would require assistance, to make up for a total cereal shortfall of 4 million metric tonnes (MT). Of this, emergency food aid would contribute 1.2 million MT until March 2003, with national governments and the commercial sector needing to source the remainder.

Coincident with these developments was the death of Savimbi in Angola and the resultant cease-fire agreement on 4th April 2002, allowing contact with a hitherto inaccessible resident population in Angola. Almost overnight, the number of beneficiaries requiring humanitarian aid mushroomed. OCHA figures suggested that more than 3 million people in Angola would require humanitarian assistance, of which 1.9 million people would require food aid.

Within the Southern African Development Community (SADC) as a whole, maize production stood at 16.3 million MT for the 2001/02 season. Whilst this represented only a 7% fall when compared to the average over the previous five years, it masked significant country level declines. These included Zimbabwe (71% down), Zambia (-35%), Malawi (-18%), Swaziland (-22%), and Lesotho (- 21%). At best, the harvest in April / May 2002 offered only temporary respite.

As of 24 September 2002, only 36% of the required $507 million funding had been pledged to the WFP and it was estimated that the WFP Regional Emergency Operation (EMOP) was not going to meet all the emergency food aid needs, nor target all the identified beneficiaries. Targeting 80% of the affected population (10.2 million people), the WFP could provide only 67% of the food aid cereal needs. An implicit requirement of the EMOP was that other actors, principally international NGOs, needed to develop parallel food pipelines to make up for this shortfall.

Commercial and government imports

It was recognised that the international community would only partly meet the massive food needs identified. National governments and the commercial sector would need to supply the bulk of the shortfall. To allow effective contingency planning to take place, it became all the more critical that available information should be shared openly. Up until September 2002, country-specific information had been poor - published figures did little to differentiate proposed purchases, active contracts or stocks already received. No information existed regarding distribution plans for government stocks once received. In all cases, it was felt that national governments needed to be more transparent regarding their capacity to access food and their progress in doing so. This would allow the international community to assess whether the needs of the hungry were being met. Where data did exist, it was difficult to assess the reliability of the figures, although they did prove useful in identifying relative import trends.

For example, figures presented at the September 2002 meeting in Johannesburg suggested that while Mozambique had imported 78% of its requirements, Zambia had imported only 9 per cent of its estimated need.

Compounding issues

Genetically modified organisms (GMO) became an important issue in 2002. At various times, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Malawi and Mozambique all expressed concern or refused acceptance of genetically modified (GM) maize. Most of the concerns revolved around the potential contamination of local agricultural crops, although health risks were also mooted. Zambia came out strongest by banning the import of GM maize, though this may be subsequently reviewed pending more recent data collation by Zambian scientists. Malawi announced that, from the first of October 2002, all GM maize must be milled to prevent any potential environmental contamination. However, the issue of who should incur the additional milling costs was not fully addressed. While SC UK accepts the right of governments to question GMOs in principle, it believes that this crisis required greater pragmatism. If the only choice were accepting GM crops or seeing many people starve, SC UK felt that countries in the region should soften their stance and accept GM crops -milled or unmilled - for the period of this emergency.

The effect of HIV/Aids has created a new kind of crisis. The structural decline that characterises the region is now being compounded by HIV/Aids, which has implications for targeting, household food security and recovery. This is the first time we are seeing the livelihood impact of Aids on such a vast scale.

Advocacy role

SC UK was one of the first NGOs to alert the international community to the impending food crisis in Southern Africa. Using data from HEA assessments and nutrition surveys, it was possible to lobby vigorously key agencies with a strong degree of confidence in our position. In many cases this strategy led to strained relationships with our targets (who were also, in a real sense, our potential partners), but it did successfully force the issues into the public domain and encourage debate to take place.

SC UK secured an early response from DFID for food aid funding in Zimbabwe (August 2001), but despite our attempts, could only achieve the same much later for Malawi (February 2002). Intensive lobbying had begun in Malawi in late 2001. Advocacy was conducted at national, regional and international levels, either directly or through influential agencies such as OCHA. A variety of meetings, letters to key individuals and press statements were used to exert pressure for an early food aid response in Malawi, in particular targeting the WFP, the European Union (EU) and DFID. However eliciting a timely donor response proved unsuccessful. Eventually by early 2002, the WFP and DFID were responding to the crisis, however the EU continued to prevaricate.

In Angola, SC UK has constantly lobbied the United Nations (UN) to be more effective in its humanitarian co-ordination, and for the donors to respond more generously to Angolan humanitarian appeals. Part of this lobbying work took SC UK to the UN Security Council in March 2002. Through conducting food security assessments in Malawi, Swaziland and Zimbabwe, SC UK has remained an influential voice with both the WFP and the member governments of the SADC. SC UK's regional food security adviser sits on the SADC Regional Vulnerability Assessment Committee in Harare, giving the agency a strong regional overview of food security and early warning issues.

Locally, SC UK ensures its voice is heard at all levels. For example, agency staff attend the fortnightly WFP/NGO meetings in Johannesburg. Key regional issues are continuously raised with OCHA and UNICEF. These include highlighting the plight of Zimbabwean farm workers and the need to safeguard principles of neutrality, appropriate attribution of aid and safety of humanitarian personnel.

SC UK has taken the lead within Zimbabwe in providing guidance and information on food security to the British NGO group. Meanwhile in Mozambique, a group representing the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) agencies has also met regularly to examine food security and co-ordination concerns. SC UK is part of an influential NGO consortium in Malawi, which works alongside the WFP and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), and sits on several governmental task force committees to address food policy needs. Save the Children Swaziland currently chairs the NGO Drought Consortium, which handles all negotiations between NGOs, government and the WFP. These activities and meetings are mirrored by similar groupings and meetings held in the UK amongst the relevant agencies.

Media coverage

Aid distribution in Chunga, Binga district, Zimbabwe in July 2002

As an international agency, the scale of the disaster made it incumbent on Save the Children to ensure that the facts were made widely known, and that they were subsequently acted upon. A key vehicle for this communication was the media. Initially it was extremely difficult to generate media interest, since for many it was 'just another annual food crisis in Africa'. During these early stages, media coverage was sporadic and was nowhere near the level required to spur reluctant donors into prompt and decisive action. Interest from other agencies was also relatively limited, although by the beginning of 2002, Concern and the WFP were clearly doing what they could.

From the outset, SC UK had worked closely with other UK NGOs to increase the profile of the crisis - a strategy that had intermittent isolated successes. To heighten awareness, SC UK decided to capitalise on a pre-arranged trip by the Mirror newspaper to Malawi, inviting the journalist concerned for a specific briefing on the crisis. The resulting coverage was of a sensational, and occasionally quite critical, nature but it did provide the opportunity to dramatically increase the profile of the issue.

On the day the Mirror newspaper published the story (21st May 2002), SC UK took the decision to use an approach that the agency had been debating about internally, and which coincidentally, had been independently used by the Mirror. The line taken by both parties compared the potential scale of the emergency in Southern Africa to the famine in Ethiopia in 1984-85. SC UK was not suggesting that the same numbers of deaths would be seen, but rather that many millions of people over a huge geographical area would be seriously affected and that, without intervention, deaths would undoubtedly occur. Although this risked conflating two wholly different events, it did dramatically illustrate the scale of the potential crisis and resulted in two days of intense follow-up coverage from television, radio and print media.

Since then, media coverage has improved but remains sporadic, with two main peaks of attention in the period since. The first was the launch of the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) appeal on 25th July 2002, using Save the Children spokespeople in both London and Johannesburg. The second involved coverage around the land reform process in Zimbabwe. Regarding the latter, the highly politicised approach taken by most of the UK media frequently resulted in misleading comments about the nature and the causes of the humanitarian crisis in Zimbabwe.


The recent experience in southern Africa has demonstrated the following:

  1. The value of early and persistent lobbying with donors/ UN agencies, as demonstrated in the eventual international recognition and humanitarian response to the Southern Africa crisis.
  2. The predictive power of the Household Economy Assessment models to anticipate emergency situations/ food crisis. The evidence suggests that the first warnings were accurate, that the household economy approach used in these studies was sound, and the approach should be used as a basis for future early warning and monitoring. With its focus on access to food, income and other livelihood resources, it is a valuable tool for linking poverty reduction strategies (and monitoring their impact) with disaster prevention. In view of the fact that inadequate methods of analysis, based on food availability indicators, persist in the region, it is imperative that food access be incorporated as an integral part of any analytical process.
    More detailed analysis is required of the way in which newly liberalised grain markets are operating in the region. Also, to what extent was this a 'free market famine', and what steps are needed to ensure that poor harvests do not, in future, result in a similar collapse of the market system.
  3. Communication strategies are an essential element of advocacy work. The media is a powerful means of mass communication, however humanitarian organisations do not have full control over how their information is used or a situation is portrayed. This must be considered when engaging the media and interpreting media coverage in any humanitarian crisis.

For further information, contact Anna Taylor, Nutrition Advisor, SC UK, email:

Show footnotes

1Experiences drawn from two SC UK reports: Evolution of a Crisis, a Save the Children UK perspective, September 2002 and Responding to fragile livelihoods in Southern Africa, October 2002

2FEWSnet: Famine Early Warning System Network

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Reference this page

Mark Wright (). Evolution of a Crisis: a Save the Children UK perspective. Field Exchange 18, March 2003. p27.



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