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Food insecurity in the Horn of Africa

Millions of people in the Horn of Africa are undernourished and at risk of famine. They suffer drought, conflict, a weak infrastructure and a limited livelihood base. But if the people and governments of the region are committed to working together, along with international non-governmental organizations, they should be able to take far-reaching measures that ensure long-term food security.


The Horn of Africa is one of the most food-insecure regions in the world. In the region as a whole, more than 40 percent of people are undernourished, and in Eritrea and Somalia the proportion rises to 70 percent. The seven countries of the region - Djibouti, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kenya, Somalia, the Sudan and Uganda - have a combined population of 160 million people, 70 million of whom live in areas prone to extreme food shortages. Over the past 30 years, these countries, which are all members of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), have been threatened by famine at least once in each decade.

Even in normal years, the IGAD countries do not have enough food to meet their peoples' needs. In four of them - Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia - the average per capita dietary energy supply (DES) is now substantially less than the minimum requirement; in Somalia in 1996, for example, it was 26 percent less. This has a devastating effect on children, in particular, who face life-long physical and cognitive disabilities. In Ethiopia, two-thirds of children are stunted; in Somalia, 20 percent of children die before their fifth birthday. The nutritional status of women, who are the main farmers and carers of families, is also a grave concern.

In these precarious circumstances, any external shock, be it a drought, a flood or an invasion of migratory pests, can push large numbers of people over the edge. Total national food production may not fall by much: even in the worst famine years, aggregate national production has only dropped to about 7 percent below the long-term average. But for the poorest communities, the effects can be disastrous, as families that had insufficient food to start with suddenly find themselves with none at all.

The farmers living at subsistence level in the higher-rainfall areas form the region's largest group of food-insecure: they tend to have little land and very few assets and typically work in remote areas far from markets. Also at risk are the 15 to 20 million pastoralists inhabiting the vast areas of arid and semi-arid lowlands: in times of drought, these herding communities not only go hungry, they can also lose their productive assets. Finally, there are the growing numbers of urban poor, many of whom have fled poverty and conflict in the countryside.


Although food insecurity is inevitably bound up with agricultural production, it should be considered within the broader context of poverty. Farmers and pastoralists are vulnerable to food insecurity not simply because they do not produce enough but because they hold little in reserve. They usually have scant savings and few other possible sources of income. To achieve greater food security, therefore, in addition to boosting their agricultural output, they must create more diverse and stable means of livelihood to insulate themselves and their households from external shocks. This will not be easy. The path ahead is strewn with obstacles - two of the most important being natural hazards and armed conflict.

Natural hazards

The main natural hazard affecting the Horn of Africa is drought. Large parts of the region are arid or semi-arid. The rainfall is low, unreliable and unevenly distributed and, although there have always been cycles of drought and flooding, there is evidence to suggest that the climate is becoming more unstable and the weather events more severe.

Faced with this unstable environment, the people of the region have developed specific coping strategies. Farmers, for example, can stagger their crop planting and, when the situation is exceptionally bad, they may even resort to hunting and gathering. Pastoralists, too, have various options: they can split their herds, set aside pastureland to provide grazing reserves or migrate to new pastures. Nevertheless, even the best coping mechanism can be overwhelmed by an extended drought.


Armed conflict, both within and between countries, is another central factor contributing to the vulnerability of people in the region. Conflict and food insecurity are inextricably linked, each triggering and reinforcing the other. Some people living in food-insecure communities feel they have been marginalized by central governments. At the same time, conflict itself almost always intensifies hunger, as it drives people from their homes and disrupts marketing and distribution systems. Then there are the long-term effects: communities that have been torn apart have little confidence in the future and are reluctant to invest in agricultural improvements.

Meanwhile, governments continue to squander scarce resources on arms. In 1997, for example, the IGAD countries allocated US$2 billion to military expenditure. This discourages donors, who risk funding warfare instead of alleviating poverty through development programmes.

Population growth

The population of the Horn of Africa (160 million) has more than doubled since 1974 and is projected to increase by a further 40 percent by 2015. The increase has already put intense pressure on natural resources, particularly land and forests, and has resulted in increasing rural-urban migration. Despite this, there has been an increase in the number of people dependent on agriculture.


The region's most vulnerable people are those living in rural areas. They have little political leverage and tend to be scattered and difficult to reach. Consequently, they are left to fend for themselves and deal with the vagaries of the climate.

Fragile ecosystems

With the exception of Uganda, only between 4 and 10 percent of the Horn of Africa's land area is classified as arable. Most of the poor are concentrated in the arid and semi-arid ecosystems and, as a result of population growth, have been forced to cultivate increasingly marginal land more intensively, with less opportunity to replenish the soil. In Ethiopia, for example, almost 40 percent of farm households have less than 0.5 ha of land, and more than 60 percent have less than 1 ha, from which to support a family of about six to eight people.

Unsustainable exploitation of the fragile ecosystem has resulted in reduced biomass, biodiversity and water infiltration, and increased runoff and soil erosion. This exacerbates environmental degradation and low agricultural productivity, thereby contributing further to poverty and food insecurity.

Environmental degradation also affects the pastoralists, although the evidence for this is more ambiguous, since there have always been cycles of herd expansion and decline. Herds tend to expand at times of greater abundance, but subsequent overgrazing - aggravated by drought - reduces available feed and the animals starve or fail to reproduce. The consequent reduction in livestock numbers, combined with better rains, allows the rangelands to recover quickly (although a major drop in the number of animals means the people who depend on them for a livelihood suffer). These cycles make it difficult to discern any secular trend.

Low-productivity agriculture

Crop yields in the Horn of Africa are among the lowest in the world. This is largely due to inadequate water control, as less than 1 percent of cultivable land is irrigated, compared with 37 percent in Asia. Yet, even farmers who have the benefit of a more reliable rainfall tend to lack access to knowledge, finance and markets. Moreover, they usually have very little land.

Those who live in low-rainfall areas have the additional disadvantage of being unable to exploit the "green revolution" technologies, such as hybrid seeds and fertilizers, which have typically been developed for areas with a higher rainfall or at least better prospects for irrigation. A number of appropriate technologies exist for drought-prone areas, some of which are applied in other parts of Africa, and these could be extended to marginal areas of the Horn of Africa.

Neglected pastoralism

Pastoralists are generally better off than farmers, at least until disaster strikes and they risk losing all their assets. Governments and international organizations have made relatively few efforts to improve pastoral systems and, when they have acted, they have often inadvertently done more harm than good. A generation of ill-conceived projects have aimed at providing water sources for livestock, as well as veterinary and other services, in apparently unoccupied rangelands. Even where these interventions have been successful, however, as with the virtual elimination of rinderpest, they have only served to increase overall livestock numbers and have therefore led to overgrazing.

Weak knowledge and information systems

Governments, both local and national, seldom have sufficient data or analytical capacity to respond quickly to changing circumstances. At the same time, local communities may know little of the broader developments that impinge on their livelihoods. Most information systems have focused on early warning systems for crop production areas. But even when there have been adequate warnings, action has been slow. Effective relief interventions demand a precise sequence of events, starting with early warnings and pledges of food aid and continuing through to the delivery of food supplies and accurately targeted distribution. As the recent crisis in the region has demonstrated, there are many weak links in the chain.

Narrow livelihood base

Most people in the region's rural areas rely almost entirely on growing a small range of crops, or on pastoralism. In other words, they are dependent on a narrow livelihood base that renders them vulnerable to external shocks. They have few options for diversification. Without irrigation or access to markets, farmers find it hard to switch to other crops and, since they lack education, they have few opportunities to branch out into other forms of employment. Women, in particular, are at a disadvantage: men's migration, either to cities or to work on large farms, puts an extra burden on women who remain on the family farm; and many technological innovations have benefited only men, leaving women with additional work and no greater level of food security.

The uneven effects of liberalization

All countries in the Horn of Africa have been liberalizing their markets, for example by reducing control by state marketing boards and leaving farmers free to sell their produce where they wish. Although liberalization has opened up new opportunities for farmers who have good land, irrigation systems and access to markets, it has brought fewer benefits to resource-poor farmers and those working in more remote areas. Indeed, they may now be worse off than before, paying more for fertilizers and other inputs, while receiving lower prices for their crops. Similar disparities have arisen from the liberalization of financial markets: banks will lend to larger-scale farmers but are less willing to extend credit to the poor, whom they regard as high-risk clients.

Pastoralists, on the other hand, have often benefited from liberalization, and particularly from the profitable export market in the Gulf countries.

Weak infrastructure

Many areas are marginalized by inadequate roads and transport systems as well as by a lack of telecommunication services and energy sources. As a result, many people are cut off from national and regional economies. Water supplies are also inadequate: in Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia, only one-quarter of the population has access to safe drinking-water. Sanitation systems, too, are poorly developed: access to safe sanitation is as low as 13 percent in these three countries and barely exceeds 50 percent elsewhere, except for in Kenya.

Poor health

The countries of the Horn of Africa have some of the worst standards of health in the world. The most vulnerable are children, many of whom are undernourished and suffer from infectious diseases, especially measles, and other types of illness such as malaria and internal parasites. The status of women's health is also poor. Two-thirds of women of reproductive age suffer from anaemia, which accounts in part for the exceptionally high levels of maternal mortality. HIV/AIDS is a more recent but equally worrying threat. The chances of being treated for a serious illness are low. Those who live in the towns and cities have better access to services, but rural communities are poorly served and the nomadic and semi-nomadic pastoralists are typically in the worst position of all.

Low standards of education

Access to education is similarly poor, although there are wide variations from country to country. In Kenya, primary school enrolment is 85 percent, for both boys and girls, and adult literacy is 77 percent. In Somalia and Ethiopia, on the other hand, the enrolment ratios are 11 and 37 percent for boys and girls, respectively, and the literacy rates are only 24 and 33 percent. In both of these countries, girls are the most disadvantaged.


As well as suffering from fragile environments and poor standards of health and education, rural communities in the Horn of Africa find themselves working in an adverse economic and political environment.

Weak economies

The IGAD countries are among the poorest in the world: the average gross national product (GNP) is just US$190. Except for in Kenya and Uganda, economic growth over the period 1965-1998 barely kept pace with, and even fell behind, the rate of population growth. The economies of the region depend crucially on agriculture: a good rainy season produces a spurt in growth but when the rains fail, growth falters too. Several of the economies are also highly susceptible to international commodity prices, particularly for coffee and tea. There are few other sources of income. Eritrea and Djibouti can earn revenue from their ports but, with the exception of the Sudan, none of the countries in the region is well endowed with mineral resources.

Reduced aid

Overall official development assistance (ODA) for the IGAD countries has fallen by 40 percent since 1990, with an even greater drop in ODA flows to agriculture, and aid now averages only US$15 per capita per year. Moreover, the assistance provided, particularly the food aid, has tended to encourage a culture of dependence. UN agencies have found it difficult to deliver coherent assistance, as their capacity has been weakened by changing targets and declining resources.

A lack of "pro-poor" policies

With a few exceptions, governments in the region have yet to prepare explicitly "pro-poor" strategies that include measures to ensure food security. Most countries have been liberalizing their economies but many of the poor have little contact with markets and so do not gain from any of the opportunities presented by liberalization. Nor have they benefited from newly created commercial banking and rural financing initiatives.

Overcentralized governance

Several countries have taken bold steps to democratize and decentralize their systems of governance. The process has been slow, however, and it is hampered by the shortage of skills to be found at the local level as well as uncertain flows of resources.

Aid responses

Most official efforts in recent years have gone into emergency relief interventions rather than long-term development plans. There have been attempts to change this pattern by linking relief operations to development programmes. However, given the shortage of government funds, such programmes have been difficult to sustain. Although there has been a move to improve the coordination of UN assistance, for instance with the adoption of the United Nations Development Assistance Framework (UNDAF), agencies have generally been unable to meet the challenge of providing coherent and consistent support to governments.

The global environment

Although countries in the Horn of Africa may benefit from globalization, there are a number of risks involved, particularly for the poorest farmers who have little access to new technology and now face even stiffer competition from foreign, capital-intensive producers.

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