CREDIT: Daniel Sinnathamby.
CREDIT: Daniel Sinnathamby.

Policy Innovations Digital Magazine (2006-2016): Commentary: Southern Africa, a Region Chronically at Risk

Jan 25, 2016

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Southern Africa is preparing for a humanitarian disaster. While millions of people are threatened by drought and hunger, plunging currencies across the region are driving up the prices of food imports, making it very hard for the region to import basic foods from abroad. In this context, we sat down to chat with Daniel Sinnathamby, regional humanitarian coordinator for Oxfam in Southern Africa.

IRENE PEDRUELO: The Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO) announced recently that at least 14 million people in Southern Africa face hunger. They are undergoing food shortages caused primarily by a poor harvest season. What is the situation on the ground?

DANIEL SINNATHAMBY: There were droughts earlier this year and there were also very bad floods, especially in Malawi and Mozambique, so the predictions are that there is going to be a poor harvest in most of the countries in Southern Africa. This has really increased vulnerabilities, especially of low-income populations. Almost 70 percent of the population in Southern Africa is either directly or indirectly linked to agricultural income and when agriculture is affected, large numbers of people are also affected, and their livelihoods become increasingly vulnerable. Then there is also the El Niño phenomenon which is currently ongoing. The effects of the El Niño may or may not contribute to adverse agricultural production, but it certainly exacerbates the effects of the ongoing drought.

IRENE PEDRUELO: The El Niño effect is usually associated with delayed and/or decreased rainfall. Have you detected its effects on the regions you are operating in?

DANIEL SINNATHAMBY: Climate really is a big issue in Southern Africa. Over the past five years, the climate has been very unpredictable for areas. This has resulted in extreme dryness in some areas and extreme wetness in others during the rainy season. It rains more than it should, and when it is dry it is very dry. This has been causing a lot of chronic vulnerability. The El Niño can exacerbate the current conditions.

IRENE PEDRUELO: Floods are expected to hit the region early this year. I believe there is a 65 percent chance of cyclones slamming into the island of Madagascar. How are farmers preparing for that?

DANIEL SINNATHAMBY: For cyclones there is a fairly robust contingency planning and an early warning system in place. But however much the plans are in place, because of the chronic vulnerability of the region, the impacts are going to be significant. A humanitarian response will be required.

IRENE PEDRUELO: Droughts frequently have cascading effects on populations, like food prices soaring, affecting the capacity of very vulnerable farmers to purchase seeds.

DANIEL SINNATHAMBY: What usually happens is that when the harvests are bad, people have no income. When they have no income, they start going into distress. When they go into distress, they engage in activity that is actually harmful for them, like selling off livestock or taking children from school, cutting down on meals, cutting down on social activities, etc. Plus, when people have no money, markets are affected and they either close down or move away. Then migration to urban areas of people in search of economic opportunities increases. Very often the urban areas have very poor infrastructure, especially for people who are informal dwellers; so transaction costs are very high for things like utilities, food, and medicine, or even for things like water and fuel. These people are very vulnerable and when there is the next cycle of threats or challenges, they are worse equipped to meet these challenges. If there are two or three cycles of drought, these people become really, really destitute, and that is a big problem.

IRENE PEDRUELO: The current urbanization rate in Southern Africa is high and the prospects are that urban population in the region will go from 38 million people in 2016 to 55 million by 2050. In this context, thinking about how to prepare vulnerable urban populations for climate-related disasters seems to be highly relevant.

DANIEL SINNATHAMBY: Except for South Africa and Namibia, none of the countries in Southern Africa (i.e. Swaziland, Lesotho, and Botswana) have urban contingency plans. Also, the situation in urban areas is quite complex because you have formal urban dwellers and informal urban dwellers. The latter are not enumerated, and therefore the municipalities do not recognize them. So even if there is a safety program, the informal urban dwellers are not eligible for any of the benefits.

IRENE PEDRUELO: Who are these informal urban dwellers you are talking about?

DANIEL SINNATHAMBY: They are both nationals and non-nationals, especially in Botswana, Namibia, and South Africa, where there is a large non-national informal urban population. These people are sometimes registered as either asylum seekers or as migrants, but most of them are not. When there is a crisis like a cholera outbreak, it is very difficult for these people to receive formal assistance. The challenge of programs trying to reduce vulnerability in urban areas like the one UN Habitat is implementing (called Sustainable Cities) is that it cannot engage with the informal population because it is working within the municipality.

IRENE PEDRUELO: Let's talk about the farmers who decide to stay in rural areas and not move to cities in these particularly difficult times. What would they need right now?

DANIEL SINNATHAMBY: First of all, what they need is a safety net. In the event that people lose their houses or they have a loss of production, what is really important is that they have a strong safety net that can support them through this hard time; and this can be in the form of supplemental feeding, especially for children, so that people don't engage in activities that involve losing their efforts and involves pawning off land that they own. These safety nets can be government-run or they can be run by government, humanitarian, and development agencies.

Second of all, especially for agricultural activity, there needs to be strong extension services to help people if the planting season has been shortened because of delayed rains. Then the question becomes: How do you cultivate short-term crops? How do you conserve water?

Thirdly, strong markets are important and they need to be functioning. There needs to be an incentive for retail markets to function effectively in rural areas so that if the safety net program provides cash transfers to people, they can buy whatever their basic needs are.

IRENE PEDRUELO: Does the growing crisis remind you in any way of the drought that hit the Horn of Africa in 2011?

DANIEL SINNATHAMBY: In the Horn of Africa the indicators were all there, but agencies did not plan early enough and did not respond early enough. They waited until the situation grew up to crisis proportions. Oxfam actually produced a paper call "Dangerous Delay." Southern Africa is characterized by chronic vulnerability. A little flood, crop loss, a bad season, or hailstorms, which destroy production, can simply bring humanitarian crisis.

In Southern Africa we are advocating for early action; for action now. We are asking governments and donors to make sure that the indicators are being picked up and that they start responding. Some of the governments have been more proactive. Malawi, for example, has a contingency plan, has purchased risk insurance from the African Risk Capacity initiative towards the negative impacts of drought. Zambia is looking at vulnerability through a wholefood economic approach. South Africa has declared drought in five provinces. So I think the governments are also realizing that early action is actually much more cost effective than the humanitarian response. It is an economic incentive for governments to start getting their contingency eventualities in place.

IRENE PEDRUELO: Both drought and hunger are considered, at least in many international development circles, a threat multiplier. Drought is considered to help create instability and eventually conflict. Is this part of your concern?

DANIEL SINNATHAMBY: Yes. The concern we have is migration of people across borders. People are already moving across the border between Angola and Namibia with their livestock in search of pasture. These are things that can cause conflict. So that is a concern.

IRENE PEDRUELO: The conversation around long-term planning and how to break these endless and vicious cycles of crisis-relief-crisis is again on the table. Benin President Thomas Boni Yay said the following at the African Pavilion for the Climate Change Conference: "Africa didn't come here to beg for money or beg for assistance but to bring about a commitment of all concerned to Africa's adaptation needs." In other words, the adaptation and mitigation needs of the continent are not aid.

DANIEL SINNATHAMBY: Africa has adequate resources to invest in good development which then results in reducing the impact of crises and disasters and also the vulnerability of communities and households. The challenges are poor governance/mismanagement of these resources, lack of accountability by decision-makers, and the poor management of the resources that are extracted (most resources are exported raw). There is also a lack of investments in the transfer of skills to local populations: there are large infrastructure programs but local populations are not involved. Lastly, very often the poor are excluded from economic and policy decisions that affect them.

IRENE PEDRUELO: Whereas agriculture provides 15 percent of GDP to the African continent, African governments on average allocate only 5.8 percent of their budgets to the agricultural sector (data from 2013). Is agriculture still a neglected sector in government budgets?

DANIEL SINNATHAMBY: There are two types of agriculture in Southern Africa. One is commercial agriculture, which is very big in South Africa, Mozambique, and Zambia; and household and subsistence agriculture. Commercial agriculture is what contributes to meeting grain deficits. With agreements and protocols there is quite a lot of commodity flows across the borders in Southern Africa. The problem is that a lot of commercial production is already pledged to meeting other countries' requirements. For example, commercial production in South Africa (surplus) is mostly sold to China and to Mexico. So even though there is quite a lot of availability, there are issues with access, primarily for poor people. In 2012, 1.9 million people in Malawi were facing food insecurity while there were 800,000 metric tons of surplus leaving the country. So agriculture contributes largely to the economies of the different countries, but does it benefit the poor? That is another question.

IRENE PEDRUELO: So, does it benefit the poor? Many farmers are increasingly engaging in non-agricultural livelihoods . . .

DANIEL SINNATHAMBY: Commercial agriculture doesn't really benefit the poor because the poor feel disconnected from the economics. For example, in Mozambique there is a vast stretch of land leased out to Vietnamese, Indians, and the Chinese producers who produce rice. But this rice is exported. It really doesn't benefit the Mozambicans. Wider agriculture brings in income, but there needs to be a way of making sure that most of the population is connected and that they benefit from this economic good. There needs to be an involvement and participation of poor people especially in the economic vision, so when decision-makers do the vulnerability assessments and decide on policies, poor people's ideas inform their decisions.

IRENE PEDRUELO: As the central agency prescribing economic development policy to the world's nation-states, the World Bank has played a prominent role in shaping agricultural policy in Africa for the last 30 years. In the World Development Report published in 2008, the World Bank argues that agriculture is the path towards poverty alleviation. However, it discounts the power of subsidies to smallholders.

DANIEL SINNATHAMBY: There is little or no evidence that in Southern Africa small holder agriculture has contributed meaningfully to poverty alleviation unless there is significant subsidization of inputs and marketing. In Southern Africa approximately 80 percent of livelihoods (production and wage labor) depend on rain-fed, small-scale agriculture, which maintains populations at subsistence level. In the absence of effective markets, agricultural infrastructure, knowledge transfer, and competition from large-scale producers and imports it would be difficult to envision the current state of agriculture being a pathway to poverty alleviation.

As far as the role of international agencies, I believe, first of all, that the governments are primarily responsible for the welfare of their citizens. The role of international agencies has been consultative.

IRENE PEDRUELO: In the last few years a new generation of big philanthropists who made their fortunes mainly in tech has emerged. These unelected actors have acquired enormous power and are trying to tackle some of the world's most pressing challenges. But their top-down approach to problem-solving has been regarded as problematic by many.

DANIEL SINNATHAMBY: These very large injections of cash need to find alignment with the priorities that governments have identified as important through their one-strategy plan. I don't think that a formulaic approach will work; because while the needs in each country may be very similar, the contextual differences are quite significant. Some of the largest foundations, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Microsoft, etc., bring technological solutions to the table, which I think is important and good. One of the challenges is how do you make this demand-driven.

IRENE PEDRUELO: Some argue that technology will solve most of the problems we are facing. Are you also a techno-optimist?

DANIEL SINNATHAMBY: I feel that technology may not be the end, although it can really provide good means.

IRENE PEDRUELO: There are some instances in which Oxfam has harnessed the power of technology to solve some of the problems subsistence farmers were dealing with.

DANIEL SINNATHAMBY: In Malawi, Oxfam worked as part of a consortium with other international agencies advocating for cash transfers for people, instead of for direct food assistance in times of food insecurity. We did the cash transfers through mobile phones. Those who need a predetermined amount of cash can then decide how to make decisions on their livelihood needs. Where the markets were affected and not functioning, we considered that direct food assistance may be more appropriate.

IRENE PEDRUELO: There's been quite a boom in the number of companies, start-ups, and organizations that are focusing their efforts on improving the livelihoods of smallholders.

DANIEL SINNATHAMBY: There is an insurance company in East Africa that is offering crop insurance. The insurance company has an arrangement with the meteorological department so when farmers buy feed and fertilizer, the bar codes are scanned and the names of the farmers can be identified through the bar code. Then if the weather conditions develop to an extent where it is determined that there is going to be a crop loss, the farmers are automatically paid. So there is very little hassle and there is good coordination between the different agencies. It is a very simplified process. Ideas like this one can benefit Southern Africa if well-implemented.

Policy Innovations' Seven Quick Questions

Where do you see yourself in 20 years? I hope I have become a very popular cartoonist. I love doing development cartoons. So that is something that I want to eventually do.

What are the three main attributes of an innovator? Vision, purpose, and persistence.

What other obsessions do you have in addition to alleviating poverty? Women's rights is something that I am very passionate about. I worked in India, I worked in Lesotho, I worked in Southern Africa and South Africa. I see what marginalization can do and how it excludes. I am very passionate about women.

Daniel, what does social innovation mean to you? Social innovation means people coming together to think out of the box and find solutions through interaction and engagement. Social innovation also is about people contributing their thoughts and their ideas, even if the solutions may not affect them directly.

What do you do in your free time? I like to read, I like to draw. I like to spend time with my family.

I am afraid of . . . not being able to realize what I want to do within my lifetime.

Life is about . . . making sure that you are relevant and that you are contributing to the best of your ability.

What would you tell your younger self if you had to start over? Take risks.

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