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Essay: Aid, structural reforms or empowerment: Assessing diverse interventions to abate food crises in Southern Africa

Food insecurity in Africa is one of the continent’s major challenges, exacerbated by the ongoing climate crisis. In this essay, Dr Rejoice Chipuriro reflects on different types of food aid programmes across several countries in Southern Africa. She contrasts short-term food relief with approaches intended to promote longer-term food system resilience, discussing the importance of incorporating local values and knowledge systems.

New essay: Food aid, structural reforms or empowerment in Southern Africa, by Dr Rejoice Chipuriro

About the author: Dr Rejoice Chipuriro is a postdoctoral researcher at Bournemouth University where she works with community-led organisations in Dorset, southwest England. She is also a research associate at the University of Johannesburg, South Africa. Her research focus is on food systems and community development. She holds a PhD in Sociology from the University of Johannesburg, a Master of Social Development from the University of Witwatersrand, and a Bachelor of Social Work Honours Degree from the University of Zimbabwe. She has 15 years of experience of implementing community development projects within Southern Africa. She has worked for international donor agencies that finance community development projects in Southern Africa. Some of the international, regional and local organisations she has worked with include Royal Norwegian Embassy Pretoria (covering Southern Africa), Norwegian People’s Aid, Dorcas Relief and Development, Oxfam GB, UN Women Southern African Multi Country Office, European Union Delegation to the Republic of Zimbabwe, UNDP Zimbabwe, Africare, CARE International, Catholic Relief Services and the Mandela Institute for Development Studies. 


Food insecurity in Africa is one of the continent’s major challenges which has been exacerbated by the ongoing climate crisis. As a result, there are many well-intentioned programmes that are seeking to address this challenge on the ground. These efforts have resulted in different outcomes, which I seek to explore in the paper.

Food is integral to human development and human security and communities in hunger often face conflicts as people fight for survival. When there is little food available it is often the weakest who suffer, and this includes infants, children, and mothers. As a researcher, social worker and former staff member in aid granting organisations I often found my work focusing on mitigating the negative impacts of food insecurity. I participated at different levels of interventions, particularly in the four Southern African countries of Lesotho, Mozambique, South Africa, and Zimbabwe. I will draw from my personal experiences and reflect on the different food aid systems.

My interest in this topic is manifold, firstly because as a woman working in development aid, I witnessed the huge burden of responsibility on women to grow, harvest, store and cook food to feed families including extended families under their care. Yet, societal structures, land administrative policies and governance departments were in most cases very constrictive, making it difficult for women to access good land to grow the food. In addition, water scarcity increased the burden of providing water to grow food or clean water for household use and to cook the food. On the other hand, aid agencies mostly funded by World Food Programme, USAID, and other western governments, brought in additional complexities to local food systems that had both good and bad outcomes. The purpose of this work is to highlight different contexts and the debates and experiences in addressing food insecurities with the aim of contributing to alternatives that promote food access, improve nutrition, well-being, and community cohesion.

Food relief patterns within and across the four Southern African countries

Stakeholders such as national governments, local and international food aid organisations funded by World Food Programme, and United Nations agencies such as UNICEF all agree that there are patterns of gendered power struggles in times of food scarcity which have an impact on the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These are global development targets set by the United Nations and adopted by Member States. Related closely to food systems is SDG goal number 2, which aims to ‘End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture’. Different stakeholders hold distinct views on how to achieve SDG2. Two of the main patterns of food relief that I have observed across Southern Africa are short term food relief and alternative approaches intended to promote longer-term resilience.

Short term food relief

Generally, perspectives on how to eliminate hunger include emergency food relief programmes, funded mostly by the World Food Programme (WFP) and occasionally by the national governments, in the form of direct food aid – grains, legumes and cooking oil. Such food aid normally follows a government proclamation of a national disaster such as droughts or floods and is a common aid system in countries such as Zimbabwe, Lesotho and Mozambique. The benefit of having immediate relief through emergency food aid is that it can help avert and reduce the negative impacts of extreme hunger amongst the most vulnerable populations.

However, some food aid programmes have had negative unintended consequences. For example, when governments assign lower budgets to emergency responses or fail to plan and ensure their early warning systems are functional, fewer people can be assisted. When the budget is not adequately planned it creates tension between those few who are eventually selected and the majority who are denied food aid. Some of these tensions outlive the food crisis and disrupt community cohesion. Lack of a functional food aid programme has had negative impacts. For example, when the governments of Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe received food aid funds from the European Union, UK Aid and the UN's emergency fund in response to cyclone Idai in 2019, there were coordination challenges between the different state and humanitarian aid agencies involved. For example, information on who had been assisted and with what was not quickly shared which meant some people benefited twice or more from the aid agencies in the area whilst others did not receive any support. Corrupt officials in Zimbabwe took foodstuffs for themselves, whilst some sold blankets and food that were meant to benefit communities impacted by the cyclone.


Photo credit: “Department for International Development” UK Aid cyclone Idai food aid March 2019 Mozambique

Photo credit: “Department for International Development” UK Aid cyclone Idai food aid March 2019 Mozambique


In Zimbabwe, the militarisation of the process was initially helpful in clearing roads to make them accessible for relief aid vehicles and staff. However, the prolonged presence of the military produced negative consequences as some officers were reportedly abusing their power through sexual harassment of vulnerable girls. Where international food aid donors such as WFP, OXFAM UK and UNHCR have partnered with local organisations to deliver food to communities in humanitarian crises, there have also been some reports of sexual exploitation by local staff. In response, strategies were developed by donor countries through their Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's (OECD) Development Assistance Committee (DAC) such as the Recommendation on Ending Sexual Exploitation, Abuse, and Harassment in Development Co-operation and Humanitarian Assistance. Some reports have suggested ineffectiveness in the programmes due to delayed investigations, impunity and generally the power imbalances between perpetrators and victims which are often accentuated in times of crisis such as disease outbreaks, famines, and war 1 ,2 .

School feeding is also a common form of food aid funded by national governments, WFP and its local partners across all four countries under consideration in this paper, its aim being to address hunger in schools. While food aid focuses on targeting vulnerable groups in society for the provision of food in times of crisis, it is often limited to the affected area and for a short period until the next harvest. School feeding schemes, on the other hand, are intended to have an ongoing role in improving the nutrition, health and wellbeing of children as well as contributing to student retention. Successful feeding programmes engage the school governing bodies and involve parents in the planning, preparation and delivery of food. Where cooperation exists between the school and parents, the results have been successful. In South Africa, parents and organisations such as Equal Education and SECTION27, supported by the Equal Education Law Centre, won a court case against the government when it refused to reinstate the National Schools Nutrition Programme (NSNP) during the COVID-19 pandemic induced lockdown when food insecurity was rife. The Ministry of Basic Education responsible for the rolling out of the NSNP was challenged to provide meals for all qualifying 9 million learners in and out of school and ensure clear communication messages on how and when these learners could safely access meals during lockdown when schools were closed. There were demands for accountability through public provision of accurate data on uptake of meals as a way of showing coverage efficiency of the NSNP.

The Department of Social Development in South Africa and local non-governmental organisations such as Agri-SA Disaster Relief Foundation (funded by private companies including commercial farmers) stepped in to provide food parcels during the COVID-19 pandemic. Giving away food parcels is also a way for the private companies involved to give back to their communities and benefit from tax refunds for their donations. These local food parcels have mostly benefited urban and peri-urban communities and not so much rural communities. Whilst these food parcels were helpful and encouraged the solving of the food crisis, they have been critiqued for being nutritionally inadequate. Global research on similar programmes such as food banks has criticised how the food items in these pre-packed food parcels often rely on excess supplies rather than recipients’ food requirements3 . These arguments show how food parcel programmes offer only band aid solutions which do not resolve the underlying causes of the food crisis. Whilst they offer immediate relief, more effort should be put into long term solutions to challenges such as structural issues including high unemployment and inequality that drive hunger in South African society. Thus, food parcels may ease short term hunger, minimise instability and food protests or possible disruptions to business operations similar to the July 2021 protests 4 .

In Lesotho some rural areas have benefited from food parcels donated by church organisations from countries such as the Netherlands. These food parcels carry great symbolic value of the link between nations in alleviating extreme hunger as well as upholding the Christian beliefs of assisting the poor. However, some food such as spaghetti, macaroni and stroopwafel, whilst good to accustomed palates, were not common to the areas to which they were donated which meant either food wastage or selling of the food to get money for people to buy familiar foods.

Approaches intended to promote resilience

Another perspective emphasises promoting the resilience of food systems to ensure communities avert climate-linked food crises or recover quickly from inevitable natural disasters. The path to resilience takes different forms but mostly involves NGO-led projects focusing on climate smart agriculture, livelihood resilience and women or youth empowerment. In this approach, the participation of the individuals within the relevant communities is seen as important, although the projects are mostly framed and funded by external experts. These projects bring in new expertise, technologies, and money to ‘develop’ local people’s capacities in identifying risks and mitigating them. Such interventions aim at long-term solutions to challenges of hunger.

The term ‘development’ with reference to Africa has borne different meanings across history from the colonial era to post-independence and ensuing structural adjustment programmes have been argued to be thinly veiled forms of dispossession 5 . Most development projects linked to land and ultimately food production have led to displacements of people to pave the way for ‘development’ projects. Commercialised agriculture which is also part of modernising and development in the agrarian sector has led to food insecurity for some as land used for food crops by locals has been appropriated by investors to produce high value cash crops for export, creating localised hunger 6 . There is debate on benefits of export based commercial agriculture in Africa which produces high value cash crops for exports to international market and is not aimed at supplying the local urban food market. The majority of urban poor people in Africa rely more on food exchange from kin in villages or smallholder farm produce sold at urban markets than on commercial farm produce outputs. It is argued that when the rural land is taken up for commercial farming it does impact local food supply chains negatively. Contestations on the benefits or otherwise of export-oriented commercial agriculture regarding widespread displacements have driven the land reform and land redistribution agenda in former settler colonies in Southern Africa 7 . Land reform reversed racialised land holding patterns from few white commercial farmers to majority black people as a way of addressing colonial displacements and ensuing social, economic and sustainability issues. As argued by pro-land reform scholars, the benefits of export oriented commercial agriculture have not trickled down to benefit communities stripped of their land 8 ,9 . Whilst the language of many projects assumes their interventions bring ‘development’, or modernity and progress, the term sometimes evokes meanings of an eternally backward continent in need of rescuing 10 . Whilst this may sound good for fundraising, it brings about problematic power asymmetries about who defines and drives what development is. Currently, development criteria are framed and defined according to standards set in the Global North and are mostly driven through donors’ agendas 11 .

Whilst noble in their intents, there are practical challenges in implementing these empowerment projects or resilience training activities because they focus on individuals without looking at the power symmetries and the local politics which often dictate land and resource allocation, including food distribution. Most access into communities is a negotiated process between the community leader and politicians, and these people often benefit the most at the expense of the more vulnerable, less influential, or politically less well aligned members. For example, women have been trained to do climate smart agriculture but within certain local cultures they are not recognised as landowners – and so while they have the skills, they have nowhere to practice them. In some cases, lack of understanding or appreciation of local customs in conservation and spirituality by NGOs means that people trained will not be able to use the skills if they are in contradiction to their local belief systems. For example, irrigation systems which are delivered by donors to be utilised at consecrated perennial springs have often been stolen or vandalised to disallow installation of the equipment on these sacred sites. Land is believed to belong to ancestors and any intrusions such as the installation of equipment is seen as desecrating sacred monuments which evokes the wrath of ancestors leading to serious consequences such as continuous droughts.

Finally, are social movements operating at both national and regional levels such as La Via Campesina, Rural Women’s Movements and university scholars. These stakeholders argue that addressing hunger is a political issue which requires a restructuring of oppressive elements such as the patriarchy and government policies and service structures that disadvantage the poor, create unequal access to resources and fail to provide safety nets to relieve citizens from crises. Most of these organisations are linked to pro bono services by law firms who assist in taking actions against powerful institutions such as the police, local or national government to claim the rights of members to land or food, and they have faced backlash. In South Africa, activists campaigning for land and food justice have been killed and the deaths of members have not been investigated, as reported by Abahlali baseMjondolo, a shack dweller association based in KwaZulu Natal. Whilst these grassroots-led organisations attempt to tackle oppressive structures, they have faced threats from those in power. Similarly in Zimbabwe, people who have challenged corrupt officials have been arbitrarily arrested or denied food aid, as food distribution is often politicised to silence opposition to the main governing political party. Despite the threats to life, local community initiatives have persisted, though only in small pockets, in challenging power such as through the fast-tracked land reform process in Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe’s Fast Track Land Reform Program (FTLRP) challenged the underlying logic of settler-colonial agrarian relations founded on racial monopoly control over resources that deprived peasants of land and forced them into cheap agrarian labour on commercial farms 12 . In South Africa protests between 2020 and 2021 were mostly linked to hunger in urban communities following COVID-induced lockdowns. However, in places such as Mozambique these protests to power have sometimes turned into protracted insurgencies, for example in Carbo Del Gardo.

Personal reflections and suggestions on the way forward

Demeaning forms of food aid that don’t build dignity and self-agency and continued dismissal of local knowledges often lead to top-down approaches to aid. Non-collaborative approaches between aid agencies and local communities discount communities’ best interests, which can cause more harm to the local ecosystems. Often these top-down approaches are subtle ways in which colonialism has remained entrenched in our development agenda. Funding is at the root of trivialising stereotypes and paternalistic conduct displayed by some international aid agencies, who use ‘poverty porn’ 13  to emotionally engage potential donors into funding their work 14 . A favourite fundraising image is usually of an African woman holding a skeletal child with flies on the child’s face often accompanied by messages on the urgency of the matter and how contributions will save lives as these. Whilst such imagery works well to raise funds by showing some of the food struggles, it does harm by being one-dimensional, focusing on vulnerabilities, victimhood, and marginality alone which is demeaning and dehumanising. There are often generalised fundraising statements which erase the diversity of experiences from Africa’s 57 nations where people are not all equally experiencing war, disease, poverty, and hunger. In some instances, the stereotypical imagery informs how solutions to most of the problems are imagined and implemented. Most well-intentioned food aid and development projects still plan interventions for rather than with the local communities, because of the view that Africans are not experts but victims and therefore incapable of resolving their crises.

Adopting local values and knowledge systems to complement food aid

Food aid is usually not universal, requiring aid workers to conduct vulnerability assessments in which villagers are ranked according to their level of wealth, and assistance is granted only to those who are the poorest of the poor. Whilst this ranking system is logical as a means of sustaining all households equally amid scarcity of resources, it often has unintended impacts such as tearing down the existing local support systems. Since food aid interventions are a common feature, especially during droughts, villagers are aware of exclusionary criteria in beneficiary selection and often compete to qualify as the poorest. This competition takes many forms including wearing torn clothes to the food aid selection meetings, accompanied by forlorn looks. They have learnt how poverty is often associated with torn and dirty apparel, as seen on aid appeals where images of dirty women and children with torn clothes are used for fundraising. Other villagers compete to be enlisted among the poorest by not disclosing household assets and other sources of support such as remittances for fear of exclusion.

To address these dehumanising processes in food aid, donor organisations should consider the local value systems and concepts on aid as incorporated by the Ubuntu value system of communality. It is important to acknowledge local value systems such as “Ubuntu” which is translated as “I am because we are, we are, therefore I am”. This means that the success of the individual is located within the success of the wider community, as no man is an island but relies on the group for fulfilment. The Ubuntu philosophy shapes aspects of day-to-day life and optimises the indigenous setting of most African communities by believing in group solidarity which in turn shapes individual behaviour to be pro-communal and sharing rather than individualistic or opportunistic. It is also a way to express compassion, reciprocity, dignity, humanity, and mutuality in the interests of building and maintaining communities with justice and mutual caring 15 .

Adapting relief aid to complement local values, community assets and knowledge systems can improve communities’ capacities to effectively address food crises and avert hunger. This process involves taking time to find out from the people the best way to share resources without completely excluding others, for example those who were food insecure but had cattle. As the cattle were often shared with the poor and provided draught power to prepare their land during planting season, so should food be equally shared among community members in times of distress to eliminate hunger for all. These are essential ingredients with which a successful cooperation in aid and support can be woven to ensure no one is left behind through competitive or degrading beneficiary selection programmes in food aid or support systems.

Projects aimed at building community resilience to food and climate crises can also be improved by acknowledging and respecting local knowledge or cultural systems and incorporating these into solutions. For example, women traditionally hold access to food seeds as the role to feed the family rests on them. These seeds, such as millet and sorghum, have been previously under-studied as they are categorised as ‘small’ grains (in reflection of their small size) and have been a low priority in research agendas. (See also the essay How power dynamics influence southern African seed and food systems.) Agriculture-related empowerment projects driven by government technical experts and university research institutions have instead focused intensively on cash crops. Private partnerships aimed at empowerment run by companies that grow cotton seed and tobacco have offered inputs on credit and training to empower youths or women and other poor farmers. It is argued that these private partnerships have increased poor farmers’ debt through high input purchase costs and further negative consequences on food security as most land is directed towards growing cash crops rather than food crops. In my opinion the solution lies in promoting both cash and food crops as well as local food seed varieties that are adapted to local dry areas to avert hunger. Local knowledge and external research expertise can be harnessed meaningfully to improve on locally available resources as a proactive measure to promote sustainable agriculture.

Organisations such as Africare, Plan International and CARE International have encouraged food committees as a way of handling school feeding and incorporating parents and school governing bodies. Some local school feeding schemes in Durban have partnered with community organisations that grow organic food such as Umgibe, a farming organics and training institute, which contributes fresh vegetables to the meals. What has worked is that the school governing bodies are trained on how to monitor and account for food that is distributed and to ensure there is no misappropriation. Where this has worked well, the parents are actively engaged, they rotate duties to ensure inclusion and there are clear grievance procedures in place, for example anonymous feedback boxes have helped parents to share their grievances which are then addressed by the committees. By incorporating locally available foods, food aid helps boost local food value chains, promotes sustainable food sourcing and makes available food which is familiar to the community to reduce wastage.

Whilst certain emergencies such as flooding require technical expertise and quick action, it is more efficient to include residents as they know their terrain well and can assist staff with this information. It is equally important for external donors that come into communities to identify the problems that communities prioritise and work together to find solutions. Often such dialogues help external funders to identify belief systems, community politics and power issues that can promote or hinder successful project implementation. When people are consulted it is also emancipatory as they co-produce solutions and build on local knowledges as well as on external ideas and funds, which grants local ownership. In addition, the external donors can create a safe space to discuss issues and to facilitate structural changes rather than to entrench local unequal power relations that might result in negative unintended consequences.

Organisations can open safe spaces for discussion on resolving conflicts that emerge during food aid programmes, as most staff are trained in conflict management. Organisations such as Norwegian People’s Aid (NPA) are known for opening safe spaces where dialogue can happen through supporting local organisations that work with marginalised workers, shack dwellers, farmer organisations and urban residential associations in Mozambique, South Africa and Zimbabwe. Their model of bringing together a diversity of stakeholders with conflicting opinions in a neutral space has succeeded in resolving localised conflicts, for example those between powerful farmers and their aggrieved less powerful farm employee associations. The format of these safe spaces is also based on minimal interference from the organisers whose role is simply to facilitate a safe space for dialogue between conflicting parties. This method has worked as it brings together people that might not otherwise meet due to power imbalances and it supports bottom-up approaches by bringing to the table voices that are usually ignored or silenced. NPA equally collaborates with governments by engaging the local communities, military, and international experts to do demining along the borders between Zimbabwe and Mozambique, which has cleared land for farming to avert hunger in this disaster-prone area. In this way whole communities benefit, rather than just a select few individuals, which feeds into the Ubuntu philosophy of communality. Whilst these programmes are not entirely perfect, they give examples of successful collaboration at technical level, government level and community levels.


Food is central to the human development and sustainability agenda, while also holding value as a socially unifying resource. It is used for community cohesion and its absence has devastating effects on human security and threatens future generations and humanity’s continued existence. As such, interventions intended to protect food security should be carefully implemented to ensure the best possible outcomes for the communities served. Food systems stakeholders should be aware of the risks of each model of intervention. Collaboration is a key element as well as inclusive participation and problem analysis which focuses on solutions hinged on community assets and the consideration of local customs, values and social structures.



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