Africa’s Food Crisis

Africa’s Food Crisis

October 28, 2005 5:02 pm (EST)

Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.

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Sub-Saharan Africa

Food and Water Security

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World’s hardest-hit

In quantitative terms, there is enough food available to feed the world’s 6.4 billion people, but 852 million people will still go hungry this year. According to the United Nations, nearly a third of the world’s hungry live in Africa, where more than 200 million are suffering from malnutrition.

There is no one cause—or solution—for Africa’s famines, which explains why emergency-food crises recur year after year in many parts of the continent. Famines are often caused by drought, flood, conflict, or pandemics like HIV/AIDS or malaria. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates thirty-five countries face food crises requiring emergency assistance, while the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS) narrows the world’s worst cases to five countries in Africa: Somalia, Zimbabwe, Chad, Ethiopia, and Southern Sudan:


Without a functioning central government and wracked by rivaling warlords, Somali will not receive enough international food aid to feed its hungry. Gunmen regularly hijack international aid coming into the east African country and then hold the aid ransom, which caused the UN World Food Programme to temporarily suspend food shipments for security concerns in July and exacerbated Somalia’s emergency-food problem. More than 17 percent of Somalia’s 6.8 million people are malnourished. For the past four years, prolonged droughts and diseases like hepatitis and malaria have only aggravated an already desperate situation.


President Robert Mugabe’s land-redistribution campaign in 2000—which forced thousands of white commercial farmers to give up their properties to landless blacks—has crippled Zimbabwe’s economy and destroyed his citizens’ access to even the most basic commodities. Mugabe now faces an unsustainable fiscal deficit and soaring inflation. According to a report by the Center for Globalization, the purchasing power of the average Zimbabwean in 2005 has fallen back to 1953 levels—an unprecedented drop, except for during times of war. Not unrelated, 36 percent of Zimbabwe’s rural population is expected to require food aid over the year ahead, a number based on the Mugabe administration’s plan to import 1.2 million tons of food aid to address shortages caused by draught. Failure to access the maize will substantially raise the number in need of assistance, and the WFP is preparing to help 4 million Zimbabweans.

Until the United Nations received a report (PDF) by Special Envoy Anna Tibaijuka lambasting Mugabe for destroying the homes of thousands of the poor in Harare as part of “Operation Murambatsvina” (“Operation Drive out Rubbish”), the international body had tended to avoid criticizing Zimbabwe’s government. It had publicly accepted the Mugabe administration’s explanations of food shortages as the result of droughts and the spread of HIV/AIDS, which neglected the impact of Mugabe’s land-redistribution campaign that ruined his country’s agricultural sector, once considered the “bread basket” of Africa.


Having survived three decades of civil war and invasions by Libya since gaining independence from France in 1960, Chad remains handicapped by still-simmering internal conflict. Africa’s fifth-largest country and one of the world’s poorest nations, it ranks 167th out of 177 countries on the UN Human Development Index. Eighty percent of the country’s population survives on subsistence agriculture. Arid, landlocked, and prone to regular natural disasters like drought, floods, and locust infestations, Chad is used to food shortages, which were only exacerbated after unrest in neighboring Sudan’s Darfur region in 2003 and 2004 led to thousands of refugees fleeing into Chad.

But there is hope for the country: After an oil pipeline from southern Chad to the Atlantic coast in Cameroon was installed, Chad began pumping oil in July 2003, bringing with it heavy foreign investment. To allay fears Chad will fall prey to the corruption that oil has given rise to in other African nations, investors have imposed conditions on the government whereby the bulk of oil revenues would be spent on development.


Better known for its recurring famines than for its distinction as Africa’s oldest independent country, Ethiopia suffers from one of the highest malnutrition levels and lowest primary-education enrollment ratios in the world. The agricultural sector, which accounts for half of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP), 60 percent of its exports, and 80 percent of all employment, suffers from frequent droughts and poor farming practices. The country’s poverty-stricken economy has taken a hit in recent years from historically low coffee prices—Ethiopia’s most lucrative export—and a costly war with Eritrea in 1998-2002.

According to international aid agencies, things may be looking up for Ethiopia, at least in the short term. A third successive good harvest season will bolster the country’s real GDP growth, which stands at 6 percent. Also, USAID reports that good harvests, in conjunction with “significant improvements in humanitarian assistance,” have helped ease the heavy burden of Ethiopia’s food shortages for the time being.

Southern Sudan

Civil war between the mainly Muslim north and the Animist and Christian south has ravaged Sudan for more than twenty years and cost 1.5 million lives. After two years of negotiations, the two sides signed a peace deal in January 2005 granting the southern rebels autonomy for six years. It was thought that after the peace treaty was signed, the Sudanese could finally begin cultivating their country’s gold, cotton, and oil resources.

But in 2003 a separate conflict broke out in Sudan’s western region of Darfur that has resulted in tens of thousands of deaths and over 1 million displaced Darfurians. The U.S. Congress has called Darfur genocide, while the United Nations has called the conflict the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Adding to the food pressures this conflict presents, the World Food Programme predicts that returning refugees, who left during the twenty-year civil war, may have a serious negative impact on food availability in Sudan, especially in the northern Bahr al-Gazal region. The United Nations predicts that up to 130,000 people may return to the Bahr al-Gazal region in 2006.

More on:

Sub-Saharan Africa

Food and Water Security


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