Images of African famine once again scan Western television screens, prompting a renewed search for causes and solutions. In this worried atmosphere it is easy to overlook that international relief operations have now become a widespread and accepted response to this unfolding crisis. While Sudan and Ethiopia spring to mind, such interventions have also occurred in Uganda, Mozambique, Angola and Liberia.

This response is worth examining for at least two reasons. Firstly, growing international welfare assistance exposes an underlying trend toward regionalization in the world economy, and Africa’s peculiar place within that process. Secondly, international relief operations have been dogged by limited effectiveness, including widespread obstruction by political actors on the ground.

The case of Sudan is instructive in this respect. Following a temporary improvement after the 1984-1985 famine in the north, since 1989 there has been a growing concern, both within and outside Sudan, that a major famine was again taking shape. During 1990, however, the regime headed by Lt. Gen. Omar al-Bashir undermined NGOs working in the country and disregarded the views of its own government agencies, angrily denying that famine conditions had reappeared. [1] Only since February 1991 has the government officially recognized a “drought” and begun a belated emergency program. These difficulties represent a new phase of confrontation between the African state and the international community.

Two-Tier Welfare

Since the 1970s, Africa has been embarked upon a unique trajectory in terms of world development. That comparative economic advantage existing during the 1960s with regard to economic growth, exports and education has been lost as other Third World countries — for example, India — have reversed relative positions. The spectacular emergence of the East Asian manufacturing economies further highlights Africa’s decline. As the world economy has become increasingly regionalized within North American, West European and East Asian blocs, the technological and materials revolution associated with this process has rendered many of Africa’s staple exports redundant. Following this trend, rather than domination by transnational corporations, active disinvestment by foreign companies has become a feature of many African countries.

International decline has been matched by flagging domestic production, the growth of food insecurity and, in many areas, protracted internal conflicts and political instability. At the same time, as development assistance and food aid has become less important elsewhere in the Third World, its need has steadily grown in Africa. By the end of the 1980s, Africa had become the largest regional recipient of international food aid, donor developmental and humanitarian assistance, and accounted for the bulk of NGO relief expenditure. [2] As the globe separates into powerful, competing regional blocs, Africa has been reintegrated within the resulting world system not by effective economic ties, but through an international concern to contain and manage a crisis that indigenous states appear unwilling or unable to tackle.

This new phase of international intervention has been informed by a neoliberal critique of the Western welfare state. Neoliberal politics, which gained ascendancy in the US and Britain during the 1970s, has set itself the task of dismantling the redistributive state in favor of a residual institution that promotes market forces. Under the impact of this approach, a two-tier welfare system has begun to take shape in the West. Economically viable groups are expected to seek social and welfare services in the marketplace. For the remainder, a safety net of basic support, partly constructed from care contracts between local authorities, voluntary and private agencies, is being put in place.

In Africa, Western international intervention is encouraging the emergence of a similar two-tier system. From the end of the 1970s, IMF/World Bank structural adjustment programs have been attempting, with debatable consequences, to stimulate market reform and encourage producers while, since the mid-1980s, targeted NGO welfare safety nets have become common. IMF/World Bank programs are currently in operation in 30 African countries. Welfare safety nets, which are particularly associated with the effects of enviro-economic collapse and internal warfare, exist in about a dozen.

Typical safety nets involve a contractual relationship between an international funding body, or donor, and an NGO, whereby the latter acts as an implementing agent of the former in an agreed program of assistance. If present at all, African governments usually play a symbolic role. Relief operations, which are a good example of this system, usually involve bilateral donors and international NGOs. The safety nets that have emerged in Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia, Uganda, Mozambique and Liberia are of this nature. In south Sudan and Angola, however, the UN rather than bilateral donors has played a leading role. UN agencies, under pressure from declining income and growing demand, have increasingly subcontracted detail work such as refugee feeding and health education to NGOs.

Public Service Contracting

In 1970, total NGO expenditure was in the region of $3 billion. By the end of the 1980s, it had nearly doubled. The main origin of this growth, despite periodic surges of private giving with the advent of media campaigns, was a marked increase in government funding — from 1.5 percent to 35 percent of total NGO expenditure (12 percent of all official aid) over the same period. [3] The US currently directs half of its official aid, mainly in the form of food aid, through NGOs. This trend is being followed by other donors, especially Britain. Where this tendency is most marked it has often accompanied an overall decline in official aid budgets.

NGO budgets have grown considerably. The US agency CARE, for example, has an annual expenditure which equals the official aid of Austria ($270 million). The British agency Oxfam has a budget similar to the aid budget of New Zealand ($120 million). In net terms, NGOs now collectively transfer more resources to the Third World than the World Bank. Not only are NGOs financially significant but, when much official aid is clawed back as debt repayment, their no-strings help becomes even more important.

Since the 1970s, with Africa becoming the largest regional recipient of international food and humanitarian aid, this assistance has been directed through the donor/NGO welfare system. The growing importance of official funding has given donors a significant measure of influence over welfare aims and objectives as safety nets have spread. The present crisis, owing to the greater expense of relief compared to developmental interventions, has reinforced this. The need of NGOs to be involved in such operations for reasons of media credibility also strengthens donor influence. This trend, which is not without its critics, has changed many NGOs from relatively independent bodies into implementers of donor policy. As a style of work, which can include developmental as well as relief goals, it has become known as “public service contracting” (PSC). [4] Because it is a donor-led system, at least in terms of financial flow, PSC should be distinguished from a community-oriented, self-reliant developmental approach still espoused by some NGOs.

Several reasons account for the predominance of internationally managed PSC in Africa. First, the extent of the crisis, with large-scale population displacement and widespread food insecurity, necessitates a prompt managerial response. In the case of Sudan, much development work initiated by agencies following the lull after the 1984-1985 emergency has been rolled back due to the resurgence of war and famine. Secondly, in many countries the governmental structures able to address these problems are either absent or ineffective. Finally, compared to Latin America or Asia, the relative dearth of indigenous NGOs (with the exception of Eritrea and Tigray) has reinforced the international character of the various donor/NGO safety nets that have emerged.

The exigencies of the situation have also drawn developmental and other types of NGOs, including African agencies, into this mode of operating. In north Sudan, for example, the initial response to the 1984-1985 famine was readily met by the large American PSC agencies such as CARE and World Vision. The severity of the emergency also drew in developmental NGOs, including Britain’s Save the Children Fund and Oxfam.

As the effects of the war began to be felt in the south, indigenous church-based agencies such as Sudan Aid and the Sudan Council of Churches were also coopted. Typical forms of organization now involve consortia of agencies, in some cases around a dozen, operating in different relief theaters. Such consortia, usually supported by several donors, are shaped around a division of labor based either on geographical area or function (transport, food distribution, medical services, nutritional surveillance and so on). By the late 1980s, although about 100 NGOs existed on paper as operating in Sudan, only 20 or so were actively involved in the safety net system which covered several million people.

The fact that developmental agencies, often reluctantly, have been drawn into PSC systems has led to internal criticism of their effectiveness, especially their reliance upon reactive, minimalist inputs and the power politics that decides what is, or is not, an emergency. This critical component, when linked to media coverage, has been an important counter-balance to donor hegemony. The reasons African governments have often reacted negatively to internationally managed welfare systems, however, lie in the wider political context of which international intervention is part.

Actual Adjustment

The transfer of official aid away from government and toward NGOs represents a unilateral decision on the part of donors based upon a wish to improve effectiveness and accountability. This shift, which has never been discussed with governments, or NGOs for that matter, establishes a potential for antagonism between the state and the donor/NGO system. When African governments assert that donors/NGOs have bypassed the state and established a parallel welfare system, they suggest the existence of a public competence that has been ignored. In response to enviro-economic collapse and IMF;World Bank adjustment measures, what has happened in Sudan is that a type of adjustment by the dominant groups has taken place but not in the manner expected. This actual adjustment has a direct bearing on the question of existing competence. A potential for antagonism exists between the donor/NGO system and a state, not whose competence has been bypassed but whose function has significantly changed.

The concept of actually existing adjustment arises from a growing conviction that conventional economic and political analysis is no longer adequate. Far from collapsing under the growing weight of insurmountable problems, Sudan’s Bashir regime appears to be consolidating. Recent work has begun to focus attention on the survival strategies of Africa’s dominant groups and classes. [5] The so-called “debt crisis” is a case in point. Unlike in Latin America, African debt is not commercial but mainly owed to official multilateral and bilateral bodies. Commercial bank debt is different from official debt. During the 1980s, Sudanese politicians became masters at playing off bilateral and multilateral (e.g., IMF and World Bank) creditors against each other. Despite regularly defaulting on payments to bilateral creditors, for geopolitical reasons donors maintained their financial support. Sudan’s aggregate debt has no bearing on the actual and much lower levels of repayment. Moreover, if this paper debt were canceled overnight, it would do nothing to solve the more serious problem of declining official foreign exchange earnings as the formal economy contracts.

Actual adjustment focuses attention on the largely unrecorded growth of the informal economy. In other words, parallel markets emerge alongside and within the formal economy. The result has been a process of fragmentation in which informal/formal and public/private sectors have become increasingly interwoven in complex and little understood circuits of exchange.

Within Sudan, the parallel foreign exchange market, based upon the earnings of legal and illegal migrants, is an important part of the underground economy. Foreign exchange trades at many times the official exchange rate, contributing to significant capital flight. Between 1978 and 1987 capital flight from Sudan amounted to an estimated $11 billion or roughly the equivalent of Sudan’s entire foreign debt. [6] When this is added to the $10 billion in unrecorded savings abroad, one can argue that Sudan is not really a debtor nation at all. Taking such estimates into account, Sudan’s GNP needs to be revised upward by 45 percent. The main problem, should the state wish to face it, is how to mobilize existing private wealth. As the gap between official and parallel markets has widened, and foreign exchange has been sucked into the latter, imports and locally produced commodities requiring imported materials have become scarce. Dominant groups have exploited this situation through control of the black market, smuggling and hoarding. Those with access to foreign exchange, bank credits and import licenses are able to earn huge “scarcity rents.” The fiscal changes resulting from IMF/World Bank adjustment programs have reinforced this speculative climate. The National Islamic Front (NIF), through access to state office and links with the Islamic banks, has flourished. Since the 1984-1985 famine, moreover, the Islamic banks have increasingly engaged in grain speculation; the Bashir regime has assigned them responsibility for managing Sudan’s strategic grain reserve.

During 1990, as evidence of famine was growing, this reserve was exported in its entirety. This example highlights another aspect of actual adjustment: the functionality of famine. We know, for example, that livestock prices collapse during times of grain shortage. What has received less attention are the activities of those merchants and middlemen who directly benefit from these low prices. Prompt and effective relief operations are not in the interests of these groups, who are often powerful local actors. Indeed, their gain is maximized by withholding relief.

This logic achieves a certain legitimacy in times of war. [7] Some have argued, for example, that the widespread famine affecting northern Bahr al-Ghazal in 1988 resulted not from the poverty of the Dinka concerned but from their natural wealth in livestock. [8] This wealth made them a systematic target for outside interests. Merchants, militia leaders, politicians and army officers connived together to cause and profit from this famine. They armed militia groups, organized the sale of looted livestock, put captive labor to work on commercial farms, prevented relief from reaching the area and, through circuits of the informal economy, dispatched some of the proceeds abroad as capital flight. Although the poor suffer as a result of the “disaster” of war and famine, through a process of actual adjustment the powerful and well-connected frequently gain.

Deepening Antagonism

Informal activities become increasingly important as the formal economy declines. Because of the central place of public office within the informal economy, its growth has sapped that public competence which previously existed. It is a process synonymous with the disconnecting of the state from civil society, and established the prospect that even under outwardly difficult conditions it is possible for dominant groups and classes to survive and even prosper. One aspect of the antagonism between the actually existing state and the donor/NGO system is that the international safety net, with its commitment to accountability and concern for human rights, acts to counter the informal economy, thereby threatening dominant survival strategies. This antagonism, while present in enviro-economic emergencies, is more clearly manifest in relation to internal war.

Internal war also shapes another aspect of the antagonism between the state and the donor/NGO system, forcing international safety nets to operate along the fault lines of African sovereignty. Governments frequently reject help for areas under opposition control, fostering the emergence of a number of extra-state or cross-border operations which attempt to circumvent such constraints. In the Horn, cross-border programs have operated from Sudan into Eritrea and Tigray, and from Kenya and Uganda into south Sudan. An indirect consequence of these humanitarian interventions is that those forces contesting the limits of existing sovereignty have been strengthened. Since the mid-1980s, thousands of tons of food aid annually crossed the border from Sudan into Eritrea and Tigray, helping stabilize local conditions and allowing the liberation fronts to maintain momentum. In south Sudan, the overdue 1989 UN/NGO intervention (Operation Lifeline) helped stem the exodus of population from the region, meaning that the North, if it ever could, can now never achieve a military victory. In other words, the donor/NGO safety net has helped in the de facto partitioning of Sudan.

Although the PSC mode of operation places donors in an influential position, in Eritrea, Tigray and south Sudan it has been constant NGO agitation around the plight of civilians within these areas which has forced donors, sometimes hesitantly, to commit resources and confront the functionality of famine. In Eritrea and Tigray, indigenous agencies, the Eritrean Relief Association (ERA) and the Relief Society of Tigray (REST), have modified the PSC model, monopolizing local implementation. In contrast with the split between the state and civil society in Sudan, ERA and REST have succeeded in earning widespread professional respect with regard to the political dynamic of which they are part.

Replacing and Redividing the State

Antagonism with the state arises from the nature and consequences of international intervention and has at least three elements: a) the donor/NGO system represents a major and unilateral transfer of resources away from government; b) in attempting to uphold accountability and respect for human rights the safety net system runs counter to elite survival strategies; and c) it indirectly strengthens those forces struggling for the redivision of sovereignty. In other words, international welfare intervention threatens to replace and redivide the unreformed state, most acutely in countries where the enviro-economic and political crisis is deepest. It is not a conscious or cynical intention but, as in cases where NGO lobbying has been vital in prompting intervention, it arises from a genuine concern for those in need.

In Sudan, moves to control and restrict NGOs were set in train by the Sadiq al-Mahdi government after 1986. By expelling aid personnel, Khartoum established intimidation as a means of preventing relief from reaching south Sudan. The Bashir regime has continued these trends, making it even more difficult for agencies to import essential equipment or obtain entry visas and travel documents. Attacks in the popular press have increased the atmosphere of intimidation.

This antagonism has matured and positions hardened as famine has reappeared. The Bashir regime has been reluctant to admit its limited reach for fear of ceding more control to the international community. Indeed, by placing Sudan’s strategic food reserve under the control of the Islamic banks and attempting to force international NGOs to “pair” with “Islamic” agencies, one can detect moves to construct the semblance of an alternative welfare system. Donors have responded with one of the few weapons at their disposal: the conditionality of relief assistance. For a state that has learned, as it were, to survive without its civil population, this strategy, unfortunately, has only harmed those it would seek to help.

International welfare intervention in Africa, and in Sudan in particular, has thrown into relief the outdated nature of a world regulatory system erected around ideas of nation-state sovereignty. Underpinned by United Nations mandates and the Geneva Conventions, this system, which took shape in the aftermath of World War II, has become increasingly irrelevant in the face of internal wars and situations where famine is functional. The contested and fragmentary spread of donor/NGO safety nets testifies to the limitations of the international regulatory apparatus. As the Gulf war indicates, Western donors would prefer to coopt rather than change the United Nations and related systems. Unless an international framework is soon established which can question actual adjustment and outlaw functional famine, Africa’s poor are destined to suffer recurrent emergencies while the rest of the world watches at home.


[1] Africa Watch, Sudan, Nationwide Famine: Culpable Negligence in the Management of Food Security, War and the Use of Food as a Weapon (Washington, DC: November 1990).
[2] Mark Duffield, “The Emergence of Two-Tier Welfare in Africa: Marginalization or an Opportunity for Reform,” Public Administration and Development, forthcoming 1991.
[3] J. Clarke, Democratizing Development: The Role of Voluntary Organizations (London: Earthscan Publications, 1991).
[4] David C. Korten, Getting to the Twenty-First Century: Voluntary Action and the Global Agenda (Bloomfield, CT: Kumarian Press, 1990).
[5] B. Beckman, “The Post Colonial State: Crisis and Reconstruction,” IDS Bulletin 19/4 (October 1989), pp. 26-34.
[6] Richard Brown, “Debt, Adjustment and Donor Interventions in Post-War Horn of Africa: Issues on the Research Agenda,” paper presented to Workshop on the Prospects for Peace, Recovery and Development in the Horn of Africa, The Hague, 1991; and “The Hidden Economy,” New Internationalist (June 1991), pp. 12-13.
[7] Mark Duffield, War and Famine in Africa: An Exploratory Report for Oxfam (Oxford: Oxfam, 1990).
[8] D. Keen, “A Disaster for Whom? Local Interests and International Donors During Famine Among the Dinka of Sudan,” Disasters 15/2 (1991), pp. 58-73.

How to cite this article:

Mark Duffield "Where Famine Is Functional," Middle East Report 172 (September/October 1991).

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