“.. There are 854 million undernourished people worldwide: 820 million in the developing countries, 25 million in the transition countries and 9 million in the industrialized countries. Sub-Saharan Africa accounts for 13 percent of the population but 25 percent of the undernourished people in the developing world. It is the developing region with the highest proportion — one-third — of people suffering from chronic hunger. Hunger in sub-Saharan Africa is as persistent as it is widespread: between 1990–92 and 2001–03, the number of undernourished people increased from 169 million to 206 million.” (FAO, SOFI 2006:8)

This study is about chronic food insecurity, and offers a broader explanation within the current food price crisis, exposing the sharp decline in investment for the agricultural sector in Africa. Chronic food insecurity (chronic hunger) is ‘a long-term or persistent inability to meet minimum food consumption requirements’ (WFP 2006). The ECOSOC note (May 2008) is instructive: “the global food crisis threatens millions of the poor and vulnerable. It has triggered violent protests around the world in Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean. It has brought into sharp focus the plight of the poor, the hungry and the malnourished and spurred commitments to action from concerned individuals and institutions around the world. It has also led to a deeper examination of the source/origin of this crisis.

Chronic food insecurity appears to be a ‘normal’ experience for the developing world’s poor. This group does not have the means or cannot be engaged in full scale productive economic activities. To most observers, it is ‘business as usual’, a ‘structural’ or “long term problem” meriting neither emergency nor recovery assistance. Unlike the killer famines of the 1970s and 1980s, the chronically food insecure do not die in massive numbers, nor does the media report about them on prime time news. In fact, there is a sense of relief among humanitarian workers, policy makers and analysts that such large scale mortality from hunger will not repeat itself with advanced technology and the ‘wisdom’ gained in tackling past crises. One wonders whether this sense of complacency is justified in the face of burgeoning chronically-food-insecure populations. Given the present global food crisis, it is not too difficult to imagine a scenario of a regional-scale emergency of the 1970s/80s, with a huge build-up of the chronically hungry, with significantly reduced capacities from the HIV/AIDS pandemic, deteriorating environmental conditions in the zones of  food production, frequent and violent disasters due to climatic changes, sharply increased prices of cereals and petroleum, exacerbated, in some regions, with large numbers of Internally Displaced Populations (IDPs). It can be catastrophic.

The rise in the number of chronically food-insecure populations literally constitutes a ‘silent emergency’. Having exhausted their assets, including their social capital, over the years, the chronically food insecure populations are no longer able to borrow as they have defaulted on debt repayment so many times. They occasionally subsist on such assistance, just to ‘maintain’ life. It is time now to ask the hard questions: what good will saving lives do if it only keeps people in misery and at a greater peril in the future? There is, however, a point at which chronic hunger is intolerable, perhaps for a person suffering chronic hunger, ending life becomes an option. For the same reasons, the humanitarian preoccupation with saving lives is likely to keep the chronically food insecure in misery and at a greater peril in the future. At the core of humanitarian action, saving lives must strive to create resilient communities in the face of adversities.

The current high food price crises across many nations, particularly in Africa, are rooted in the chronic neglect of the agricultural sector, basic technology used in production and vulnerability to climatic hardship. The high food price crisis is bound to divert the meagre national resources away from development, presenting an even greater a challenge to the stability and security of nations. The fight against hunger is rendered even more difficult as more incomes of the poor and chronically food-insecure are spent on food, households eat less and less well, driving up malnutrition rates. In Africa, there have been extreme conditions of nutrition already before the high food prices: “of the children who are born, 65 percent will experience poverty, 14 million will be orphans affected by HIV/AIDS.” (Garcia, Pence & Evans 2008: 2).

As many field practitioners and researchers have pointed out, during the height of emergencies, resources for relief responses are often generous, stimulated by an outpouring of compassion, thus improving operational swiftness to save lives. However, once the emergency subsides, the funding dries up, with little investment having been made to create the necessary conditions for the populations to rebuild resources and become resilient. Both time and opportunities are lost by not using the relief momentum to create such an enabling environment. The situation that exists today keeps millions living on the edge so that, come the next natural disaster, a ‘ripple is enough to drown them’.

The chronic hunger one witnesses traversing the many villages in Sub-Saharan Africa is not simply the result of random or seasonal events but is indeed systemic and permanent as a result of chronic neglect. The people who are persistently hungry are so, partly due to exposure to recurrent crises, and progressive erosion of capabilities over many years. Recent literature argues that while relief measures may have improved operational swiftness to save lives, they have fallen short of supporting resilient livelihood systems, and thus are woefully inadequate to bring about sustained improvements in the economic and social well-being of the populations.


Three interlinked assumptions underpin the problem of chronic food insecurity in developing countries: a) investments in agricultural and rural development over the past decades have declined significantly; b) relief interventions have become effective in saving lives but do not go a further step to encourage investment in recovery of disaster affected population and the food insecure; and c) recovery programmes suffer from lack of best practices, absence of institutional means and dedicated financial arrangements.

2.1 The case of Declining Investment in Agriculture

There has been chronic neglect of agricultural and rural development to which chronic food insecurity is ascribed. Marginalisation and neglect are the principal sources of discontent and armed conflict in many countries fuelling further chronic food insecurity. The former USAID Administrator, McPherson’s testimony (May 2008) provides that “governments and most international organisations cut back on agriculture development expenditures in developing countries … In the early 1980s, 30 percent of the World Bank lending was for agriculture, by early 2000s, it was 10 percent despite the fact about 75 percent of the world poor live in rural areas”.

Furthermore, data on Official Development Assistance (ODA) for agriculture, food security and humanitarian aid have been analysed.(1) A percentage change for each of the sectors is calculated using 1980 as the base year at current price. The result shows that ODA for agriculture has dropped from 12% in 1980 to 3% in 2006. In contrast, humanitarian aid has increased from 2% in 1980 to 7% in 2006 (see Fig 1). Similarly, development food aid / food security allocation continued to decline from 6% in the 1980s to about one percent in 2006.

According to DAC, “development food aid/ food security” is a contribution of food in kind to the government of the recipient country for sale. It is provided in non-emergency situations in connection with variety of development challenges. (e.g. to assist with balance-of-payments transfers)”

The author submits that the problem of chronic hunger is symptomatic of declining investment in the productive agricultural sector. Also contributing to the sluggish performance of the sector are the continued expenditure on sustaining war and conflict, and the lack of leadership in the agricultural sector by developing countries themselves.


Given the pattern of continued neglect of the agriculture and rural developments, it is not surprising to witness millions of Africa’s small-scale farmers faced with chronic food-insecurity. There has not been nationally and internationally assisted stimulus of growth for this group of population. Besides the neglect, small scale farmers in Africa face many profound challenges: the HIV/AIDS pandemic; more frequent disasters, or at least localised climatic irregularities (not just because of improved reporting); utilization of more marginal lands and pasture zones for crop production with increased the chances of crop failure.  For example, the Southern Africa drought of 2002 exposed millions to starvation because of the slow erosion of their asset base over the years, as a result of economic downturns, low investment in agricultural development and HIV/AIDS.

Many countries in Africa have conspicuously lacked agriculture and rural development strategies, in any systematic or concerted manner. Maxwell (2001:39) provides an insightful summary of the progression of agricultural strategies up to the 1990s. Since the 1980s, Africa’s agriculture has been dominated by emergency relief and the notion of ‘relief-to-development’ continuum, dominated by structural adjustment measures (see Table 1).

Table 1: The evolution of thinking about agriculture: 1950s – 1990s


Source: Maxwell, 2001: 39. Agriculture Issues in Food Security, in Devereux & Maxwell, 2001

During the ensuing periods of crises, the chronically food-insecure populations remain on marginal food assistance, which does little to enable them to regain their pre-crisis status.  Having exhausted their assets, including their social capital, over the years, they no longer are able to borrow as they have defaulted so many times on their debt repayment. Such communities are to be found in many countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. Ethiopia has formally recognised this group, and has created a Productive Safety Net Programme (PSNP) to channel assistance. The PSNP promises pioneering institution and funding arrangements, for the chronically food insecure populations.

The vital roles of agriculture as a vehicle of growth and reducing hunger are being acknowledged. After a long while, the World Bank (2008: 2) published its annual report on agriculture recognising that “agriculture has served as a basis for growth and reduced poverty in many countries, but more countries could benefit if governments and donors were to reverse years of policy neglect and remedy their underinvestment and mis-investment in agriculture.” The report further points to the fact that for ‘ GDP growth originating in agriculture is about four times more effective in raising incomes of the extremely poor than GDP growth originating outside the sector’.

2.2 The Case of Ineffective Relief Programmes

Relief assistance has fallen short of providing the means to re-establish assets or property lost in combating the consequences of recurrent crises. Ethiopia reports over 8.2 million agriculture-dependent people as chronically food insecure (representing 11% of the national population) even during non-drought and normal agricultural seasons (MOARD 2006). In Eastern Sudan, Red Sea and Kassala States alone, an estimated 1.2 million people (49% of the region’s population) are chronically food-insecure (TANGO 2005). In Niger 1.8 million people (15% of the national population) are described as ‘severely’ food insecure (Inter-agency assessment 2006).

In 2005, TANGO conducted a study in Eastern Sudan to examine the extent of food insecurity among the population which has been on continuous food assistance for more than two decades. The study shows that over the last several decades, the region of Eastern Sudan has experienced a severe erosion of its traditional rural livelihood systems. Two forces—one environmental and the other political—have combined to create both a recurrent food security crisis throughout many parts of the region and a situation of chronic poverty for many of its inhabitants. The environmental stress factor has been the increasing climatic variability, ranging from generally inadequate rainfall to full-scale drought. Over the last two decades, droughts have rendered livelihoods unsustainable. Local populations have responded to these interactive stresses with coping strategies that include demographic shifts, modification of resource management practices and the mobilization of social capital.  This study provides evidence, however, that these buffers have reached the limits of their effectiveness.

In Niger, an inter-agency food security assessment was conducted in 2006 which revealed that “15% households are severely food insecure, 15% households moderately food insecure and 29% are at-risk” (Republique du Niger, 2006: 7). This means a total of 3.9 million people are food insecure, of which 1.8 million people are severely food insecure and 2.1 million people are moderately food insecure out of a total population of 11.9 million. Furthermore, the study characterised food insecure households as those who: have chronic food problems; rely mainly on donations, transfers and on income from the sale of wood; are highly indebted; have very poor food consumption pattern; spend 75% of their income on purchase of food, and sell or mortgage land, household goods and productive animals in pursuit of meeting household needs. It is pointed out that “while the crisis in Niger in 2005 brought into focus the extent of vulnerability throughout the Sahel, there has been growing awareness of crises occurring year-after-year in localized pockets or zones where access to food is blocked by a combination of harvest failure and market prices beyond the purchasing power. With increasing competition for natural resources, the distinction between pastoralist and farmer is becoming less clear. …. pastoralists are increasingly turning to agriculture as a means of either supplementing livestock production or replacing it… As more households become agro-pastoral, the inter-dependence between the two groups becomes less, and the relationship becoming increasingly characterized by conflict” (Trence et al, 2007: 11).

In Ethiopia the defining characteristics of the chronically food-insecure populations are “resource-poor and vulnerable to shocks, and often fail to produce enough food even in times of normal rains in the country” (MOARD, 2006: 3).  The PSNP is being implemented in rural areas only. For the purposes of the safety net, a woreda is considered chronically food-insecure if it has been a recipient of food aid for a significant period, generally for at least each of the last 3 years.” The broad thrust of Ethiopia’s PSNP is to ensure sustainable development and poverty reduction through agricultural development, investment in education, increased water resource utilisation and institutional transformation to empower the poor. It ultimately aims at preventing long-term consequences of short-term consumption shortages, namely asset depletion, at the household and community levels, by addressing immediate human needs, while simultaneously supporting the rural transformation process (MOARD, 2006). The latter is undertaken by encouraging households to engage in production and investment; and promoting market development by increasing household purchasing power. The PSNP consists of a labour-intensive Public Works component, and a direct support component to assist those households who have no labour at all or any other means of support, and are chronically food- insecure. It is envisaged that the PSNP would break the cycle of chronic food insecurity through future productivity improvements for the entire community, ensuring eligibility on a priority basis, and through its integration with other food security programmes.  Although the PSNP’s impact is too early to judge (given it started implementation in 2006), it has laid the foundation for institutional learning and recovery fund management.

2.3 The Case of Ineffective Recovery Programmes

Crisis recovery means a return to normal levels of production and employment after an area has been hit by a disaster. In recovery terms, there is very little consensus about the modality for  reducing or removing food insecurity, let alone chronic food insecurity; nor is there an accepted minimum set of activities or best practices within humanitarian action that can be applied to reduce chronic food insecurity. A number of loosely expressed terminologies have been applied to post-crisis assistance strategies and used interchangeably: rehabilitation, recovery, crisis recovery.

Recovery activities, as compared to relief, require a different set of skills, resource intensity, duration of intervention, and partnership arrangements. While relief activities are dominated by supply chain managers (warehouse, logistics); in contrast, recovery programmes are centred on sustained engineering and production expertise, and require specialists in community works to match new techniques with farmers’ ‘recovery’ needs.

Ultimately, post-crisis assistance activities are assumed to create income or asset capacity for the population with the specific objectives of: a) helping them return to the accepted ‘above poverty line’ norm; and b) create durable economic and social conditions for them to tolerate future economic shocks (in terms of loss of livestock or income sources, failure of production, price rise of staple crops). Recovery programmes commonly suffer from insufficient resources, inadequate management reforms by way of technical design, and limited international best practices for organizational learning.

Failure to recognize the problem of chronic food insecurity, and consequently allocating inadequate funding, in the author’s view, fosters a growing aid-dependent population. Easterly (2006: 165, 167) poses the question “how well have we, foreign aid bureaucrats, done through the $2.3 trillion we have spent on the problems of the poor?” And, he points out that “the tragedy of poverty is that the poorest people in the world have no money or political power to motivate searchers to address their desperate needs, while the rich can use their money and power through well-developed markets and accountable bureaucracies to address theirs. The foreign aid bureaucracy has never quite gotten it – its central problem is that the poor are orphans: they have no money or political voice to communicate their needs or motivate others to meet those needs”.

A major concern is that there is no budget-line for the post-crisis phase of humanitarian action explained by a lack of operational and conceptual clarity and lack of funding mechanisms within aid architecture. Recovery is neither relief nor development; it does not exist in national government or donor budget lines. It must nevertheless be recognised as an essential instrument to deal with replacement of losses, preservation and creation of capacity to link to development in a sense of sustained attainment of well-being in all its dimensions, including economic sufficiency, social equity, personal security, good health, opportunity, and personal freedom.

In order to understand the effectiveness of humanitarian assistance, hard questions about the expectations of relief programmes need to be asked. Nearly every relief agency today recognizes that the mere distribution of relief items is no longer sufficient as such programmes must also reflect the priorities of the disaster victims, and aim to reduce the economic impact of the event, i.e. provide adequate resources to ‘normalize’ the social and economic infrastructure to its pre-crisis status so as to increase the population’s resilience to face a new disaster.  One can argue that returning populations to their ‘pre-crisis state’ now needs to be questioned also, because the crisis may have fundamentally altered the environment in which the population lives.


A blend of institutional, political and technical actions are needed to address the ever burgeoning chronic food insecurity; non in isolation can be effective.

The chronically food-insecure populations must be recognised nationally and internationally as a priority, and as a distinct economic group with specific political, security and humanitarian dimensions. The chronically food-insecure, whether resulting from civil conflict, natural disasters or long-term neglect, have specific needs that are different from those periodically hit by calamities or those in developmental stages. As such, chronic food insecurity cannot be addressed with ‘quick fixes’ or with relief institutional and funding arrangements; neither can it be addressed solely within development institution.

Nationally led specific institution and dedicated recovery funds that focuses on the chronically food insecure population must be established. This will guarantee recovery for the chronically food insecure populations and for those requiring sustained assistance following a relief measure. The proposed recovery funds must urgently be invested in activities that advance economic opportunities for the food insecure including employment generation, asset building, livelihood diversification, technological transfer, agricultural and rural developments.

National and regional institutions must guide investments that enhance recovery and sustained development of the chronically food insecure. Grassroot organizations, particularly focusing on the chronically food insecure populations, are expected to play critical roles in linking productivity enhancement measures, and technologies with households. Extensive knowledge exists within the various research institutions of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). Partnerships with research centres and the proposed recovery institution with a wide geographic spread at the grassroots level can disseminate new ways of production and technologies to help the food-insecure group relatively cheaply.

Recovery policies and programmes supporting the chronically food-insecure must be linked to the broader national development strategies to ensure sustainability, foster enabling conditions through measures such as creation of economic opportunities and risk management.


1. According to written response from DAC (February 2008), ‘humanitarian aid’ refers to appropriations dedicated to emergencies and their immediate aftermath and/or the prevention thereof or preparedness therefore. Whereas, allocations for ‘agriculture, fishing and forestry’ are for the development of agriculture sector.


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2 Responses to The Costly Neglect: Burgeoning Chronic Food Insecurity

  1. Arthur Mist says:

    Very perceptive and well writen a lot of resonance with the [DRR ]disaster risk reduction thinking which I very much agree with.

    While many people in the humanitiarn world agree that we should be saving livlihoods as well as lives often the funds only become available to do this when the media have enough pictures of people dying of starvation, as this is then news worthy. By this stage people have often sold their productives assets and are destitute, consequently food aid is not enough to restart livlihoods and is then blamed for causing dependancy.

    Funds need to be made earlier in a crisis to prevent assest depletion, this requires the use of better food security/livlihood status indicators as early warning along with the eduction of donors to sensitise them to the realities of the scale of funds needed if widescale asset delpetion occures.

  2. Henry Maigurir says:

    Humanitarian assistance seeks to restore adequacy and provision of progessional economic and social rights in disintergrated socities as a result of a natural disater of conventional warfare. The idea is of succtinity of human life. Country assistance relief and humanitarian programmes must reflect broader and holistic values of international humanitatrian law.

    Such aid must provide return of investment, this transcends to better and safe socities to improve health for the victims of natural disasters, peace and conflict resolution to affected nations.

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