ngin - Norfolk Genetic Information Network

9 April 2003


The following article is suggestive in relation to some of the game   playing that was going on in southern Africa:
'UN agencies dominated by the US had made no move to remedy the   situation [by rplacing the GM grain] since the Zambian Government first   formally announced its rejection of GM food aid back in *June*. The reason for the dangerous delay? According to a report in Afrol News: "Only now, further supplies of food aid had been ordered, "expected to   arrive in Zambia in *December*." UN agencies had been expecting a change   in government mind until the last moment. The decision not to order   non-GM food aid until now has been observed as direct pressure against   the Zambian government." ("Continued pressure against Zambia on GM   food", 30th October 2002) '
'..there is no shortage of non-GMO foods which could be offered to Zambia by public and private donors. To a large extent, this 'crisis' has been manufactured (might I say, 'engineered') by those looking for a   new source of traction in the evolving global debate over agricultural   biotechnology. To use the needs of Zambians to score 'political points'   on behalf of biotechnology strikes many as unethical and indeed   shameless. '   Dr Chuck Benbrook, a leading US agronomist and former Executive Director   of the Board on Agriculture for the US National Academy of Sciences

The famine that wasn't

  By Nicole Itano | Special to The Christian Science Monitor
  JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA    A few months ago, a text message made the rounds on the cellphones of aid workers in Southern Africa. "Starving  child   found in Malawi!" it exclaimed.   For workers assisting in what was supposed to be a widespread hunger  crisis   covering six countries, it was breaking news with a twist: a  tongue-in-cheek commentary on the scarcity of victims.
Despite predictions that 11 million to 14 million people were facing   potential starvation, few of the traditional signs of hunger had   materialized. There were no hordes of migrants leaving their homes in  search   of food, no hospitals filling with malnourished children, no graveyards   filling with the dead.
The United Nations World Food Program (WFP) says that famine was averted   last year because the organization did its job well, intervening before  the   crisis mushroomed. Critics counter that the problem was never as large as   the WFP and other agencies warned.
The real answer probably lies somewhere in between.
About a year ago, the WFP began warning that because of drought  conditions,   Southern Africa faced food shortages of crisis proportions. The World  Health   Organization said as many as 300,000 people could die if help didn't come   soon, and the WFP asked for more than $500 million in aid. Donors opened   their wallets, the WFP and their nongovernmental partners mobilized, and   since June of last year, 650,000 metric tons of food was distributed to  some   10 million people. It was the largest humanitarian response in the   organization's history, though Iraq is expected to be bigger.
As Carol Bellamy, executive director of the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) put it, Southern Africa was grappling with a "lethal mix of drought-induced  food   shortages and HIV/AIDS" that required massive humanitarian intervention.
It was never a 'famine'
The WFP and aid agencies were careful not to label the situation in  Southern   Africa a famine, generally defined as the mortality rate in a region doubling with 20 percent of the children suffering from acute  malnutrition.
"We're so used to in Africa seeing stick figures and corpses [during  hunger   crises]," says Judith Lewis, director of the WFP's regional operations in   Southern Africa. "We didn't wait to see that before we started intervening   here. That's why people didn't die, because we did our job right."

Guy Scott, a former minister of agriculture in Zambia and now an   agricultural consultant, is one critic who isn't so sure WFP should get  all   the credit. In a recent study, he argues that the WFP exaggerated the  number   of people in need in Zambia by a factor of at least two. He doesn't claim   that the exaggeration was intentional, but says the organization's   assessment of the situation was based on flawed data and influenced by the   government which had a political interest in seeing as much free food   distributed as possible.
  Mr. Scott also points out that for a period of three months after the   Zambian government banned genetically modified American grain, the WFP   distributed less than one-third of the food they said was needed. For the   two months after that, it was less than half. If things were so bad, he   argues, there should have been some visible negative effects from these  five   months. Not only is there no evidence of increased deaths, he says, but   there is also little evidence that malnutrition reached a crisis level  among   children, who usually suffer the quickest in times of food crises.
  Ms. Lewis admits that the international community underestimated the  African   people's abilities to find ways to deal with the problem. Wild fruits,   winter crops not accounted for in food security assessments, income from   informal labor, and community networks all helped people mitigate the   effects of the food shortages. But she maintains that the scale of the   intervention was an appropriate response to the available information.
  There is some evidence that the food shortages did increase malnutrition.   Although there are no statistics on whether deaths increased, a recent   report by UNICEF found that overall malnutrition in children - already   chronic in most of these countries - increased over the previous year.  More   significantly, they say, they found that malnutrition in the worst areas   generally declined, while it increased in the best areas.
"This indicates that our response was appropriately targeted," says Urban   Jonsson, southern and eastern Africa director for UNICEF.
  But most central to the United Nations' argument is the idea that AIDS is   dramatically changing the nature of food insecurity in Africa and that our   current methods analysis may not fully describe the affects of today's  food   shortages.
A new buzz-word
  The buzz-word at the UN is "new variant famine" - that is, famine set   off by   the traditional causes such as bad weather or political instability, but   exacerbated and made more complex by AIDS.     Alex de Waal, a program director at the UN and the author of the "new   variant" idea, says that because AIDS often hits the able-bodied,   traditional statistics such as childhood malnutrition rates fail to  reflect   the magnitude of the crisis. If laborers weakened by AIDS are unable to  sow   and reap, a mild food shortage can be made worse. Because of this, the  need   to intervene at an earlier point is greater. Deaths, then, should no  longer   be the measure of a "new variant" famine.
  "There's a tendency for people to say that because this doesn't look like   what we think of as a famine, it isn't one," he says. "It's much more like   famines we've had in Asia, where you have social status and it's the  people   on the bottom who suffer.... There are no famine camps [in Southern  Africa],   so it's not as visible. But that doesn't mean there aren't people dying  and   suffering."

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