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Disparate responses to need in Southern Africa: a WFP perspective

by Judith Lewis, Coordinator United Nations Regional Inter-Agency Coordination and Support Office in Southern Africa (RIACSO) WFP Regional Director for East & Southern Africa

The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) has worked for over 20 years in Angola delivering food aid to the neediest people, even during the country's darkest days when heavy fighting meant food had to be airlifted to millions of embattled hungry people. In recent years, WFP has fed, on average, one million Angolans each month, most of whom are internally displaced due to 27 years of fighting. Throughout our presence in Angola, WFP has always stood by the Angolan people and strived to reach the country's poorest.

As a result of the ceasefire agreement between the government and UNITA rebels on April 4, 2002, WFP gained access to 60 new areas. These included so-called Family Reception Areas, where families of ex-UNITA soldiers were entitled to receive food aid as part of a chance to start a new life. More than 400,000 women, children and the elderly received food in these areas. Six months later in December 2002, WFP distributed food to former UNITA fighters.

Now, hundreds of thousands of people are returning home to start rebuilding their lives, and WFP is assisting them with basic food rations. We expect the number of people we feed to reach about 1.9 million in the near future. However, several obstacles will continue to hamper efforts: near non-existent infrastructure such as derelict roads, bridges and airstrips, millions of land mines, and most poignantly, scarce funding.

When the peace treaty was signed, WFP seized the opportunity to move food quickly to help stabilise the population. The fastest way to expand the number of people we feed was to extend our current Protracted Relief and Recovery Operation (PRRO) document. Preparing a new Emergency Operation (EMOP) would have taken longer, and at the end of the day, hungry people don't care what the piece of paper is called, as long as they can eat. And that's the bottom line. Our goal is to move food fast and efficiently to those who need it. WFP distributes 85 percent of all food aid in Angola, an indication of the continuing confidence donors and the humanitarian community have in our ability to do the job quickly and effectively.

In Southern Africa, more than 15 million people across six countries require food aid. Although the situation is extremely severe, we have never declared the region a 'famine' zone. This is because the crisis is not one of widespread malnutrition, but rather one of acute food shortages exacerbated by AIDS. WFP's response is intended to save lives and preserve livelihoods so that people recover more rapidly once the acute emergency is over and are less vulnerable to future crises.

Millions of people are unable to access their staple food, maize. This is either because they lack the purchasing power or because maize is simply unavailable. This makes them vulnerable but does not mean that every single one of them is in imminent danger of starving to death. Unfortunately many people survive by taking a variety of extreme measures, such as selling off their meagre assets, taking their children out of school to work, eating potentially-poisonous wild fruits, migration and prostitution. Due to insufficient food aid, desperately hungry people across the region have resorted to these measures to stay alive, initiating a downward spiral of deprivation, extending the current crisis well into the future.

The current crisis has been triggered by erratic weather patterns, structural economic problems, and, in Zimbabwe's case, the land reform process among others. These factors have been clearly highlighted in every WFP document issued since the agency became involved in the crisis. As the world's biggest humanitarian agency, WFP strives to act before people are pushed over the coping threshold. Our job is to respond to emergency situations before emaciated images appear on television screens around the world. WFP's intervention has already saved millions of people from starvation.

However, one of the biggest challenges facing WFP and other relief organisations is the HIV/AIDs virus, which is wiping out an entire generation of productive men and women across southern Africa. In some countries, the agricultural sector has been so hard hit that recovery from the current food crisis could be delayed. Simply put, if you don't have people to plant crops, there's not going to be anything to harvest or eat. That's why WFP's response aims to address the impact of HIV/AIDS, as well as provide food to those who have nothing to eat.

WFP and its partner organisations work hard to get assessments right. Three were carried out across the region last year, and a fourth is planned for April/ May. The last assessment in December involved a team of more than seven internationally respected organisations, including the Regional Assessment Committee of the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC), FEWSNET1, Save the Children, the International Federation of the Red Cross, UNICEF, Food and Agricultural Organisation and WFP on a regional level, and on country-specific assessments, OXFAM, World Vision, Care, and in Mozambique only, MSF. Local and donor governments also participated at many levels. These 'rolling assessments' under the auspices of SADC are highly sophisticated and involve the analysis of a variety of issues, including both food and non-food criteria. This unique process involves hundreds of researchers interviewing thousands of people.

To further ensure transparency, not all assessment partners are involved in the implementing process, and therefore, have no self-interest in the outcome. WFP then bases its humanitarian response and programming on assessment findings.

It would be interesting to have more information about the diversity of the assessment teams and the extent of fieldwork undertaken by MSF to reach the conclusions expressed in their article. More to the point, it is unfortunate that MSF has decided not to join the group of agencies that has been working together to devise and conduct assessments in the region in order to help strengthen analysis, but instead, has chosen to remain on the outside, and criticise.

Show footnotes

1FEWSNET: Famine Early Warning System Network

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Judith Lewis (2003). Disparate responses to need in Southern Africa: a WFP perspective. Field Exchange 18, March 2003. p11. www.ennonline.net/fex/18/responses

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