Tag Archives: food security

WFP wins the Nobel! Is this an opportunity to enhance protection? (WFP Nobel Series, 3)

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The 2020 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the World Food Programme (WFP) for “its efforts to combat hunger, for its contribution to bettering conditions for peace in conflict-affected areas and for acting as a driving force in efforts to prevent the use of hunger as a weapon of war and conflict”. WFP is the world’s largest humanitarian organization, and food insecurity and food aid are much-discussed topics in humanitarian studies. In this blog series, we examine the implications of the award and critically engage in debates on food (in)security, food aid, innovation and technology and the WFP as a humanitarian actor. This is the third post in the series. Norah Niland is a long time aid worker and human rights defender. She is co-founder and member of the Executive Committee of United Against Inhumanity.

A Sea-king helicopter onboard of HMCS St John’s, takes off for Chardonniere, in Haiti, with her load of 1000 kilograms of corn soya blend, on September 15, 2008. Photo: Cplc Eduardo Mora Pineda via Flickr

The Nobel Peace Prize Committee signaled the critical importance of food when it announced that the world’s largest humanitarian agency, the World Food Programme (WFP), was this year’s winner for its role in combating hunger and, by extension, “bettering conditions for peace.”  This is encouraging news but is it the full story? 

Instrumentalization of food aid

The prize brings to the fore the relationship between food – or lack thereof – and military strategies in contemporary armed conflict.  The use of food as a weapon of war does not feature much in the discourse surrounding humanitarian action.  At a time of diminishing multilateralism, the 2020 Peace Prize provides a useful opportunity to reflect on the growing need for humanitarian action given, in no small part, the flagrant disregard of fundamental humanitarian norms.  Trucking in food tends to be the easy part. Helping ensure that hunger is not weaponized and that food aid is not used to advance political or military agendas is the real challenge.  WFP now has a unique responsibility to invest in efforts that demonstrate that it is a worthy Nobel Laureate.

The recognition and acclaim inherent in the Nobel Peace prize is of particular importance in a time of frayed and failing multilateralism. The crossed vetoes of the Permanent Five (P5) in the UN Security Council (UNSC) effectively ensure that those in favor of war and the arms trade that sustains it – the P5 are among the world’s biggest arms dealers – effectively green-light atrocities.  These include the deliberate starvation of civilians by blocking or bombing life-saving humanitarian food and other supplies, medieval-style sieges and embargoes that restrict or destroy the use of essential infrastructure such as ports and other means of transport.   Inaction in the UNSC is tantamount to complicity in a trend where the weapons of choice on to-day’s battlefields include not just aerial bombardments and other explosive weapons but intentional starvation that disproportionately affects children, women and those who are already vulnerable. A study on Yemen, for example, found that “civilian areas and food supplies are being intentionally targeted.”[i]

Few will dispute that WFP, and other agencies involved in tackling hunger in to-day’s war zones, other disaster settings and in situations of chronic malnutrition, poverty and deprivation, deserve the plaudits and the support needed to continue their vital work.  

While the rationale for the Nobel prize acknowledges the significance of the relationship between hunger, armed conflict and peace, it is important to acknowledge the extent to which food insecurity, and efforts to address it, are weaponized in contemporary war settings. Although WFP is often at the forefront in negotiating access for food convoys, experience from Afghanistan to Yemen, including settings such as Somalia, Sri Lanka, Syria, Sudan, South Sudan and Myanmar, shows that food assistance is routinely instrumentalized at great cost to those who are hungry.

A Prize with moral responsibility

Denying food to war-affected communities – deliberate starvation – as a method of warfare has, for this past century, been recognized as a war crime. The politics of such situations are, invariably, complex and complicated but it is incumbent on all stakeholders, including humanitarian entities such as the WFP that enjoys significant leverage, to challenge such practices and to do so in a meaningful and robust manner.

Similarly, WFP, in common with other relief actors, has a significant moral and institutional responsibility to address the deep-seated problem of transactional sex-for-food, an abomination that is routinely denounced but is a frequent reality in situations of humanitarian concern. WFP, like others, is committed to a zero-tolerance approach to the painful reality of sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment in the workplace, including in field operations, but this problem has persisted notwithstanding various reviews and the introduction of new policies and mechanisms.

The Nobel Peace prize should incentivize WFP to examine and strengthen its overall approach to the right to food including the protection dimension of humanitarian action. This necessitates going beyond the logistics of food convoys at which WFP excels. Otherwise, more instances of the “well fed dead” will occur. Priority attention must be given to the instrumentalization and weaponization  of food. WFP should strengthen its capacity to conduct conflict and contextual analysis that enables the development of strategies geared to avoiding harm to civilians and enhancing their protection.  It must work collaboratively with others to head-off or address dangerous policies and practices that are antagonistic to food security and the safety and dignity of people in need.   

Equally importantly, WFP should capitalize on its status as a Nobel Laureate to give meaningful effect to its declared zero-tolerance stance on sexual exploitation and abuse. This requires senior-level accountability and the establishment of an independent, external monitoring and investigative mechanism to put an end to a shameful history that is at odds with humanitarian values and the distinction of being a Nobel Peace prize holder.

Let the Nobel be an opportunity for everyone to re-affirm our faith in our collective humanity; this means challenging the inhumanity of armed conflict where deliberate starvation and other cruelties entail terrible human suffering, high death rates and growing numbers of people obliged to flee their homes to seek refuge and safety elsewhere.


[i] Is Intentional Starvation the Future of War?
by Jane Ferguson, The New Yorker, 11 Jul 2018

http://www.npwj.org/content/Intentional-Starvation-Future-War.html

Nobel peace prize: hunger is a weapon of war but the World Food Programme can’t build peace on its own (WFP Nobel Series, 2)

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This text first appeared on the Conversation, and is re-posted here. You may access the original post by clicking this link. The 2020 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the World Food Programme (WFP) for “its efforts to combat hunger, for its contribution to bettering conditions for peace in conflict-affected areas and for acting as a driving force in efforts to prevent the use of hunger as a weapon of war and conflict”. WFP is the world’s largest humanitarian organization, and food insecurity and food aid are much-discussed topics in humanitarian studies. In this blog series, we examine the implications of the award and critically engage in debates on food (in)security, food aid, innovation and technology and the WFP as a humanitarian actor. This is the second post in the series. Susanne Jaspars is Research Associate at LSE’s Conflict and Civil Society Research Unit, and Food Studies Centre, SOAS, University of London.

Launch of the UNICEF/WFP Joint Nutrition Response Plan for South Sudan in Aweil, Northern Bahr el Ghazal State. Photo: UN Photo/JC McIlwaine via Flickr

By awarding the 2020 Nobel peace prize to the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP), the Nobel committee said that it wanted to “turn the eyes of the world to the millions of people who suffer from or face the threat of hunger”. Among its reasons for awarding the prize were WFP’s “efforts to prevent the use of hunger as a weapon of war and conflict”.

These issues don’t apply just to people living in areas of acute conflict, but also to the many people around the world who have experienced high levels of malnutrition for decades – usually in countries affected by multiple and long-term political crises such as Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Yemen.

The focus that the Nobel committee has brought to hunger and conflict is welcome and very much needed. It must be addressed as a matter of urgency – but not by WFP alone.

Hunger as a weapon

Hunger has been used as a weapon of war for many years, but the issue has recently risen to prominence because of the increased risk of mass starvation in today’s conflicts.

The political acts which cause hunger and starvation can be divided into acts of commission, omission and provision. Acts of commission are attacks on food production, markets and the restriction of people’s movement. Omission is the failure to act, such as when food relief is blocked, while provision is the selective provision of aid to one side of a conflict.

Similar tactics are used in protracted crises but with more subtle manipulation of markets, trade and aid than direct attacks. The war on terror, a rise in authoritarian governments, and geopolitical manoeuvring have magnified these issues and increased the risk of starvation.

The link between war and hunger was recognised explicitly with the passing of a UN security council resolution in 2018 which prohibited the use of hunger as a weapon of war. Since then, WFP has been working more actively to understand the link between food security and conflict and how it can contribute to building peace.

The power of food aid

Since its establishment in 1961, WFP has set up an expansive food logistics system and a wealth of tools to assess needs and vulnerability. In the past decade, it has also become involved in cash transfers.

It is now one of the world’s largest humanitarian organisations, but also a business which dominates all aspects of general food distribution and humanitarian assistance. It involves a whole range of people, institutions and practices which can have political and economic consequences well beyond meeting the needs of hungry people.

One of most intractable issues is the manipulation of food aid during conflict and its incorporation into the political economy of famine and war. Food aid has been stolen or taxed by warring parties or local authorities, providing not only a source of finance but boosting their political status.

In Somalia, food aid has been big business and its contractors key political actors. Elsewhere, governments increasingly deny access for food distribution in opposition-held areas, with Syria, and Sudan under its previous regime, being a case in point.

The denial of food aid can also benefit traders as it increases food prices and it benefits business because as people become displaced they are potential sources of cheap labour. The vulnerable are frequently excluded or marginalised, because they are the politically weaker members of society.

Spotlight on political inaction

As part of its role in improving conditions for peace, WFP can analyse these wider political and economic effects, and include them in the way it makes decisions. However, WFP cannot address the political causes of hunger, food insecurity and malnutrition with food aid – or in fact with any technical intervention.

Conflicts need political solutions and crimes of mass starvation need to be prosecuted. Even one of WFP’s most successful operations, the massive food distribution in Darfur in 2005 which effectively reduced malnutrition and mortality, required diplomatic efforts to negotiate the necessary access.

There is a danger that WFP becomes a substitute for political action to address the causes of conflict or for prosecuting crimes of mass starvation. This would actually perpetuate the problem, as structural causes of hunger and malnutrition remain unaddressed.

In turn, this keeps vulnerable people in a state of protracted crisis or precarity and persistent malnutrition. An over-reliance on WFP can also absolve politicians of the blame for creating famine or, alternatively, the international community’s responsibility to protect.

With the spotlight of the Nobel peace prize, WFP can do much by making the political causes of hunger in conflict visible, helping to identify famine crimes, promoting effective assistance that is specific to particular contexts, and using its power to bring about political action.

A Nobel for the WFP: A non-political Peace Prize for humanitarian multilateralism? (WFP Nobel Series, 1)

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This text first appeared on the PRIO blog, and is re-posted here. You may access the original post by clicking this link. The 2020 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the World Food Programme (WFP) for “its efforts to combat hunger, for its contribution to bettering conditions for peace in conflict-affected areas and for acting as a driving force in efforts to prevent the use of hunger as a weapon of war and conflict”. WFP is the world’s largest humanitarian organization, and food insecurity and food aid are much-discussed topics in humanitarian studies. In this blog series, we examine the implications of the award and critically engage in debates on food (in)security, food aid, innovation and technology and the WFP as a humanitarian actor. This is the first post in the series.

A World Food Programme ship with workers unloading pallets of high energy biscuits during the Second Liberian Civil War in 2003. By 26th MEU(SOC) PAO (U.S. Marines) via Wikimedia Commons

This year’s Nobel Peace Prize is awarded to the World Food Program for its “efforts to combat hunger, for its contribution to bettering conditions for peace in conflict-affected areas and for acting as a driving force in efforts to prevent the use of hunger as a weapon of war and conflict”. The announcement emphasizes the importance of supporting – and funding – international solidarity and multilateralism in a world in crisis. The WFP is praised for its work in extremely difficult conditions and for gaining access to populations in war zones like Syria and closed dictatorships like North Korea.

Together with the struggle against slavery and the provision of medical assistance to wounded soldiers, the fight against famine is the original humanitarian cause. Images of starving victims in Biafra in the late 1960s and then again in Ethiopia in the 1980s mobilized TV audiences and humanitarian efforts to ensure food delivery. Today, as the economic and health consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic devastate the livelihoods of communities globally, the WFP estimates that an unprecedented 138 million people are in need of food aid.

In her announcement, the chairman of the committee, Berit Reiss-Andersen, described food as “the best vaccine against chaos”. Asked if she expected that this year’s prize would be uncontroversial, Reiss-Andersen hoped that giving the Nobel Peace Prize to an organization helping to end starvation would not be provocative, indicating that food-aid was non-political. Whatever the reception, we argue this is nevertheless a deeply political choice, due to the assumptions it makes about food as an instrument of peace, about the linkages between humanitarianism and peace and finally about the World Food Program as an international organization.

This contribution first puts the opening quote in context, showing how food is currently framed as an instrument of peace. It then focuses on the very political nature of the WFP as a multilateral humanitarian organization within the global environment, even as the emphasis of the Nobel Peace Prize is on its role in “saving lives”. Finally, it discusses one example of the WFP at the operational level: the politics of humanitarian technology.

Food as an instrument of peace

In 2015, hunger eradication became one of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. As Reiss-Andersen indicated in the Nobel Peace Prize announcement, the WFP is the “UN’s primary instrument for realizing this goal”. In 2018, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 2417, recognizing the link between famine and conflict, and reasserting the importance of international humanitarian law in addressing hunger in armed conflict. Echoing this, the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize is presented first and foremost through the lens of the insecurity that is created when food supply is insufficient, or controlled by warring parties, and thereby praising the WFP’s contributions to making “food security an instrument of peace”.

This peace-humanitarian nexus, however, is problematic. The prize recognizes the existential threat that a lack of food causes for human life and the importance of preventing the use of food as a weapon of war. The struggles against the Irish and Russian famines were foundational moments in modern humanitarianism. Yet throughout history, mass starvation has been miscategorized as a natural phenomenon, or as an unfortunate side-effect of conflict and political oppression. Scholars have disputed this narrative, focusing instead on the infrastructures of food distribution and the political underpinnings of famine and mass starvation. The politics of famine are fierce, as exemplified by the heated discussion of whether the food shortages in Niger in 2005 amounted to a famine at all – and whether that mattered. While the focus on early warning systems and increasingly fine-grained measurements of access to nutrition in real time has provided the international community with increasingly accurate tools for predicting and addressing food-shortages, these mechanisms remain prone to interference. And as the Nobel committee notes, the WFP (and other humanitarian actors) can do little in the face of endemic funding shortages.

Thus, defining what constitutes a famine, and thereby who should respond to it, with which means and requirements, are deeply political questions. Just as hunger can be a weapon of war, so can food aid be instrumentalized in conflict settings. Improving the conditions for peace requires much more than providing food; it necessitates political commitment to promote and preserve peace.

WFP and the political nature of humanitarian multilateralism

The prize – given to an agency headed by David Beasley, a Trump nominee – is seen by some commentators as a criticism of the US for turning its back on multilateralism and withdrawing funding from the World Health Organization in the midst of a pandemic. Founded in 1963, the WFP has historically been criticized as a front for American agricultural interests. American executive directors have led the agency since 1992. The US has always been the largest donor of the WFP, which remains relatively popular in the US.

The WFP is no stranger to political controversy. Given the emergency focus of its work, with short time horizons and the potential costs to human life, the agency continually makes difficult tradeoffs. The WFP has historically struggled with corruption and food diversion, facing accusations of half of the food aid disappearing in Somalia in the 2000s. Operations in North Korea have, over time, proved challenging in relation to the quest for humanitarian accountability. Occasionally the agency has closed operation in response to donor concerns about local diversions of funding and food items, including staff corruption, such as in Yemen in 2010. Its partnerships with private companies likewise raise protection concerns, such as when its biometric ‘data lake’ (comprising sensitive data such as beneficiary biometrics) was potentially at risk of becoming accessible to Palantir and to security actors whose notions of protection refer foremost to national security rather than to the security of its humanitarian beneficiaries.

The organization has also been in the spotlight for its ongoing struggles with a problematic working environment, with reports cataloguing discrimination, abuse of authority, sexual harassment and retaliation; so far ineffectively dealt with by a poor management culture. As late as in September, there were reports of allegations of sexual misconduct in relation to a WFP compound in Northern Uganda.

The politics of the WFP at an operational level: the example of technology

In recent years, the WFP has won praise and criticism for its approach to innovation and digitization. From initial pilot projects to gauge the advantages of using biometrics to its use of blockchain, the WFP has now become a forerunner in using new technology to think differently about assistance, such as the move from ‘food’ to ‘cash’, a significant innovation in effectively meeting the needs of those affected by crisis. The use of new digital technology, however, has significant challenges.

Harnessing “data and tech to save lives” has indeed helped the WFP in various ways. Yet, acknowledging that “data and tech” can have advantages should not preclude debate about potential flipsides and critical dimensions of these developments. As mentioned above, the WFP announced last year that the agency had decided to enter into a “five-year partnership” between the WFP with Palantir, a “controversial US-based data analytics company with deep links to US intelligence agencies,” criticized for being a human rights violator.

As a more specific example of how this partnership spilled over into the WFP’s programmes the case of Yemen is worth mentioning as the issue of biometric data collection became the subject of “a pitched standoff” between the WFP and Yemen’s Houthi government. Referring to the controversial Palantir-partnership, Houthis accused the WFP of being “a front for intelligence operations,” i.e. not a politically neutral humanitarian actor. Commentators have observed that  this dispute was not just about data but essentially about “power, trust and the licence to operate”. Crucially, the tech-related confrontation has ‘real’ consequences, putting food aid to 850,000 people caught in a dire humanitarian crisis at a standstill.

Although debates about this partnership waned rather quickly, it is important to contemplate the broader relevance for the humanitarian community in a time where humanitarian governance increasingly revolves around data governance. Critical discussions – and more transparency –about the collection and sharing of digital data from people in extremely volatile contexts and about emergent humanitarian data-infrastructures are crucial for the integrity of humanitarian protection mandates. Here, the WFP, which remains a curiously under-studied international organization, could also do much more to facilitate academic engagement with the organization.

Concluding thoughts

The work of UN agencies like the WFP, are examples of multilateralism as an essentially deeply political endeavor. In the years to come, climate change may return famines to the core of humanitarian action. The kind of versatile World Food Programme we have seen emerge over the last decade will likely become an even more important actor on the multilateral scene. At the same time, as discussed in this blog, while this Nobel Peace Prize is undoubtedly a prize for humanitarian multilateralism it is not unproblematic to read this as being in praise of the humanitarian enterprise as such.

The dramatic effects of covid-19 on everyday life in Gadarif

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This text first appeared on the Chr. Michelsen Institute website, and is re-posted here. You may access the original post by clicking this link. Professor Hussein Sulieman is Director of the Centre for Remote Sensing & GIS, and Professor at the Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, University of Gandarif.

A pastoralist family in southern Gadarif trekking their cattle herd to a watering point. Photo: Hussein Sulieman

Gadarif in Eastern Sudan has been one of the country’s covid-19 hotspots. Precarious food supplies and lacking border control could mean that the chances of containing the pandemic are slim.

When the covid-19 pandemic peaked in Sudan in April/May, Gadarif was number three on the list of the regions with the most covid-19 cases in the country. Up until a nationwide lockdown was implemented in June, the virus had been able to spread relatively easily in the entire region.  In late June, the government issued several orders to reduce the lockdown and the curfew. At the same time, they warned about the risks of a second wave and strongly urged people to take precautions and practice social distancing. But such requests are only useful if people actually have the opportunity to adhere to the advise they are given. Does Gadarif have the infrastructure it takes to succeed or is the easing of lockdown restrictions a disaster coming?

Why did Gadarif become acovid-19 hotspot?
Gadarif’s 265 km border with Ethiopia has made the state vulnerable to the spread of covid-19. The total lack of cooperation between the two countries when it comes to controlling and managing the covid-19 pandemic has become abundantly clear, and made matters even worse for Gadarif. Whenthe federal government in Sudan declared a public health emergency on 16 March 2020 and closed all airports, ports and land crossings, Ethiopia’s international airports remained open. Therefore, many stranded Sudanese citizens who wanted out of the country took advantage of the situation by flying to one of the international airports in Ethiopia, travel to the border in cars and then cross the border to Gadarif. Many of them stayed in Gadarif for quite a while and mingled with people while looking for a way to get smuggled home (as travelling between states was prohibited by that time). People entering Gadarif through the border was not the sole reason for the wide social spread of covid-19 in the region. People fleeing Khartoum and coming back to Gadarif when the rumours of a lockdown started also contributed to spreading covid-19 in Gadarif.

Poverty exacerbates the spread of covid-19
Covid-19 cannot be isolated from the general political situation and economic crisis in Sudan and Gadarif. The fluid and fragile political situation stopped the government in Gadarif from enforcing many of the orders and restrictions that were issued to control the pandemic. Also, the promises of the government to support vulnerable groups through the Zakat Chamber did not come to reality. The lack of essential goods complicates everything. Large crowds gathered in front of pharmacies and bakeries is a common sight. It is hard to adhere to guidelines about social distancing when people have to queue up just to get hold of bread. This already bad situation is accelerated by the closing of inter-state traffic and restrictions on intra-city movement. Loss of income due to the complete lockdown, combined with ever rising prices of necessities substantially increase poverty of people in Gadarif. This has mainly happened to daily wage basis workers who have now lost their household income. In many neighbourhoods in Gadarif, groups of youth and Resistance Committees have done a great effort and played significant role in gathering donations to support vulnerable households during Ramadan and in Eid.

The covid-19 virus has also exacerbated acute malnutrition in vulnerable households in Gadarif. Food security has been dramatically reduced and access to healthcare has been limited. Covid-19 has increased the burden on a health system that is already suffering from three decades of neglect by the former regime.

Despite the health authorities’ stern calls to avoid big gatherings, several protest marches have taken place in Gadarif. The political tension in the area has risen as a result of attacks by Ethiopian militias in the Sudanese territory during the last week of May. Several marches and demonstrations were organized in Gadarif, where people asked for an effective response from the government. Similar marches and protests where large crowds came together took place on June 30. The organization of demonstrations and sit ins have become a major political tool in the hands of people who demand services and rights. On such occasions, social distancing is virtually always ignored.

Seasonal agricultural activities may be affected
In the context of the current covid-19 emergency, increasing attention has been devoted to the possible effects that mobility restrictions may have on supplies from the agricultural sector. Gadarif State has the largest mechanized rain-fed agricultural land in Sudan. This sector provides the bulk of food needed not only by people in the Gadarif, but also by many others across the country. The rain-fed agricultural sector in Gadarif covers about 4.2 million hectares of land. Normally, farmers start their preparations prior to the rainy season in April and May. The preparations include dry season soil working and plowing, routine maintenance of machinery and reparation of field equipment and other activities. The current restrictions have made life hard for the farmers who depend on being able to stick to a calendar that they know work.

The restrictions have also made life harder for the pastoralist groups in Gadarif. They rely on daily and seasonal mobility to manage environmental variability and access resources and markets. April and May correspond to the end of the hot dry season, when fodder and water reserves are depleted and labour demands are high.  Emergency lockdown measures such as restricted movement have disrupted the migration patterns of the pastoralists, creating difficulties for their preparations for the rainy season.

The coming couple of weeks will be a make or break for the agriculture in Gadarif. Weeding season is coming up, with an acute demand for labour. Each year, thousands of immigrant labourers from Ethiopia and other parts of Sudan arrive in Gadarif to work during the weeding and harvesting season, and the agricultural sector is totally dependent on them. Unless the government comes up with comprehensive measures that can balance the need for seasonal workers with the risk of hosting large numbers of immigrant labourers, the agricultural sector in Gadarif may take a severe blow.

Ensuring that there are workers at hand for the upcoming weeding season, and that the farmers can resume their activities when they are supposed to is crucial for a successful harvest. So is transportation of agricultural inputs to the fields. Therefore, farmers have recently used their power (especially large-scale farmers) to push the government to an early lift of restrictions and exceptions for companies and shops in local markets in Gadarif. During the first week of June, the government in Gadarif issued a local order that will make the upcoming season easier for the farmers. Nevertheless, some think that it is too little too late. The covid-19 restrictions may turn out to have had a crushing effect on the production of agricultural products in Gadarif.

Context matters – Why Africa should tailor its own measures to fight COVID-19

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This post was originally published in Africa Policy Brief by the Egmont Royal Institute for International Relations. You can find the original post by clicking here, along with a list of references. The post also appears as part of the PRIO blog series Beyond the COVID Curve. Nina Wilén is Research Director for the Africa Programme at the Egmont Royal Institute for International Relations and assistant professor at the Department of Political Science at Lund University as well as a Global Fellow at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO).

African governments have been faster than most of their European counterparts in imposing measures to deal with the COVID-19 outbreak despite dealing with numerous other challenges. However, context matters, and for Africa, the political and socioeconomic consequences of the lockdown measures may cause more havoc than the actual virus. This brief identifies political, economic and social risks related to coronavirus responses in Africa and emphasises the disproportionate burden carried by women. It argues that localised measures, which include dialogue, transparency and flexibility, may be the only realistic way forward, while underlining the need for wealthier states to provide generous aid packages, debt cancellations and continued investments, in spite of current challenges, in order for Africa to pull through yet another challenge.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa visits Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation COVID-19 Command Centre. Photo: GovernmentZA via Flickr

Introduction

As Europe and the United States grapple to cope with the effects of COVID-19, Africa is getting ready to add the coronavirus to the long list of challenges the continent already faces. Against a backdrop of widespread poverty, armed conflict, terrorism and climate change, African governments have reacted surprisingly swiftly, many imposing social-distancing measures and closing borders early on. But extensive lockdown measures are probably not, as others have already pointed out, [i] the right, or even the possible, way to go for most African states. For a continent where 70% of the population are under the age of 30 [ii] and around 5% aged 65 or over, the political, social and economic consequences of isolation measures are likely to cause more havoc than the actual virus.

This policy brief analyses the risks related to the spread of, and the responses to, the coronavirus in an African context. In particular, it looks at the political risks of emergency laws, extended powers and suspended elections; the economic risks related to both Western and African states’ lockdown measures, including rising unemployment figures, food insecurity and deepening debts; and the social impacts to which hard-hitting isolation measures may lead, focusing on how women are disproportionately affected – even though men are overrepresented among the victims of the virus. Finally, it points to the fact that Africa is a continent composed of highly heterogeneous states where localised measures that include dialogue, transparency and flexibility may not just be the most appropriate response but also the only realistic way forward.

Above all, it underlines the necessity for the continent’s wealthier neighbours in the North to ensure that the desperately needed solidarity is extended further south in the shape of generous aid packages, debt cancellations and continued investments. While this might seem like a utopic vision for an ever-more isolationist United States and an EU that faces problems raising solidarity among its own Member States, a quick glance at the repercussions that an Africa in crisis might have, in the shape of more refugees, starvation and a vaster breeding ground for terrorists, should convince the Northern states of the necessity to extend backing to the continent. If those arguments are still not enough, the leeway left for Chinese and Russian influence on the continent should alter the balance in favour of reinforced European and American economic, political and  social support to Africa, even if it will be challenging as the former face their own crises.

Emergency powers, suspended elections and political tensions

The current pandemic has provided political leaders with the opportunity of a lifetime to extend their powers through a variety of different measures. In Europe, Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán has pushed through a bill that allows the government to maintain the state of emergency as long as it wants, while in the United States, Trump’s vast emergency powers and history of attempts to erode institutional checks and balances, should send shivers along any democratic citizen’s spine. The risk of political leaders using the coronavirus crisis as a means to grab more power is thus a global phenomenon.

Yet, this risk is especially worrying in states with a history of weak democratic institutions, which are overly represented on the African continent. The 2019 Democracy Index, where half of the 44 sub-Saharan governments included are categorised as authoritarian and the remaining 22 as hybrid regimes or flawed democracies (with the exception of one state), paints a bleak picture of the strength of the continent’s democratic institutions. [iii] Furthermore, a worryingly high number of senior political officials have contracted COVID-19 incountries that are already unstable gerontocracies, including Burkina Faso and Nigeria. Popular unrest and increased political instability related to power competition are just two of the consequences that the death of a leader can trigger in states where politics are highly personalised and democratic institutions weak.[iv]

In 2020, Africa is set to host a dozen presidential or general elections, the majority of which will be held in countries confronting or emerging from conflict. COVID-19 is likely to disrupt electoral processes because of public health concerns and logistical impossibility of organizing them. Ethiopia has already postponed its first election, scheduled for August, since Prime Minister Abiy opened up the political space. While this decision has been taken in accordance with some of the opposition parties, in other states, less democratic leaders may use this as a precedent to circumvent elections. However, leaders inclined to stay in power may also choose to go ahead with elections, benefitting from the limited possibilities that the (few) opposition parties will have to prepare and execute election campaigns. They may also use emergency powers to extend their time in office. Somewhat ironically, Uganda’s 2013 law against meetings between more than three people, aimed at stifling the opposition, was declared unconstitutional on 26 March, yet the nation-wide lockdown, which, among other measures, prohibits public transport and exercise in public, will supersede it for the weeks to come.[v] In sum, the options for undemocratic leaders to avoid elections, extend powers and suppress opposition are disturbingly many this year.

Burundi, which is preparing for presidential elections in just a month,[vi] has so far not put any additional restrictions on political or sport-related gatherings, claiming that the country is protected by God’s grace.[vii] This should, however, be seen in a context where members of the opposition have faced heavy-handed clampdowns that have reduced their camps and sent most opposition members into exile. The appreciation for God’s grace also means that people continue to visit churches en masse, which may increase the spread of the virus and work against God’s protection.

Unemployment, food insecurity and the risk of increasing debts

The vast majority of the world’s poorest countries are located on the African continent, with over 40% of sub-Saharan Africa’s population living in extreme poverty [viii] and 55% of the urban population living in slums.[ix] A large part of the urban population gets by on work in the informal sector, such as street trading and open markets, with no access to unemployment benefits or sick pay. Imposing isolation measures in such contexts is not only practically impossible but also counterproductive, as it will increase poverty and lead to food insecurity. Outcries against lockdown measures can already now be heard across the continent, with people rightly identifying starvation as a bigger threat than the virus.

Africa is an integral part of the global economy and, as such, the economic downturn related to China, Europe and the United States’ quarantine measures has seen the UN Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) give bleak prognostics for the continent. Africa may lose half its GDP due to the COVID-19 crisis, due to falling oil revenues, disruption of export trade, and a decline in tourism and investments. [xii] In addition, African states importing goods such as basic food and medicines see their currencies losing value against the dollar in an instable economic context. Predictions of the loss of nearly half of all jobs in Africa underline how the corona crisis is likely to deepen socioeconomic inequalities, unless wealthier states help carry the disproportionate burden shouldered by many of the states in the southern hemisphere. [xiii]Few states on the continent have the financial capacity to offer a sufficient number of welfare packages or adequate support measures for lost incomes. South Africa, the continent’s most industrialised economy, has yet to come up with a way to compensate the loss of income for the three million informal workers who dominate the day-to-day economy in the country’s townships and downtown areas. [x] The Nigerian government has promised a subvention of ten billion naira (23 million euros) to alleviate the economic consequences felt in Lagos, a city that is home to more than 20 million people,[xi] and while the initiative is important, it is uncertain whether it will be enough to cover the loss of incomes.

The UN launched a two-billion-dollar coordinated global humanitarian response plan to fight COVID-19 for the world’s poorest countries, while the EU announced 15 billion euros to fight the virus in vulnerable countries, with EU High Representative Borrell promising that Europe would not forget its sister continent – reflecting the new EU-Africa strategy proposed only a few weeks earlier. [xiv] Wealthier states and individuals have also made contributions to fight both the virus and its socioeconomic consequences on the continent. The Chinese billionaire, Jack Ma, has donated a total of 1.1 million testing kits, six million masks and 60,000 protective suits to help Africa, [xv] while the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation will provide up to 100 million dollars to improve detection, isolation and treatment efforts and protect at-risk populations in Africa and South Asia.xvi

Upcoming discussions between the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank and the G20 leaders about debt reliefs [xvii] and the creation of one-trilliondollar special drawing rights (SDRs) to offer grants and loans provide short-term relief for many African states. Yet, delaying debt payments while giving greater access to credit only risks delaying the economic shock until a later date. Debt cancellations and increased aid budgets in the current context are not only signs of solidarity but also self-protective measures for wealthier states that are otherwise likely to see spillover effects from their Southern neighbours’ crises. Importantly, the consequences of the responses to COVID-19 will not be limited to the political or the economic sphere but will also increase social inequalities.

When social distancing is not an option

Social distancing and hand washing have been hammered into populations across the world as the main measures to avoid spreading the virus and to flatten the curve of its exponential growth. ‘Flattening the curve’ implies slowing down the rate of infection so that the number of severely ill patients is reduced, allowing countries to prepare and increase hospital capacity. This three-headed strategy presupposes that 1) social distancing is feasible; 2) there is an access to clean water and soap; and 3) that health-care sectors can ramp up capacity in a short period. Even in richer countries on the continent, such as Nigeria, South Africa and Angola, all three of these assumptions pose problems.

African urban areas are often densely inhabited even in relatively sparsely populated countries in the Sahel. Public transport often consists of privately-owned vehicles where people are sitting shoulder to shoulder, and access to clean water is limited for the poorer part of the population even in many of the major cities. [xviii] Of course, there are enormous variations between different areas, even within the same country. While the large majority of white citizens in Stellenbosch, a university town outside of Cape Town, may not have difficulty social distancing and hand washing, only 20 kilometres away in Khayelitsha, the largest township in Western Cape, which has five times the population density of Stellenbosch, this will be considerably more difficult. This is especially the case because, just days before the lockdown was enforced, the City of Cape Town decided to temporarily cut water access for those who had not paid their bills in time. [xix]

Increased tensions in areas where lockdowns have severe repercussions on the population may provoke clashes with security forces. While South African president Ramaphosa urged the military to be a force for kindness and not might, the use of water cannon and rubber bullets to enforce lockdown has been difficult to associate with kindness and is likely to have increased rather than diminished tensions. In the DRC, the head of the Kinshasa police force sent a video to Reuters of police officers beating a taxi driver for violating a one-passenger limit, to encourage others to obey the rules.[xx] These examples of forcible impositions of lockdown are not only likely to lead to largescale evasion and subversion, but also risk crowding in the streets and increased distrust of government motives.xxi

Women on the frontlines

While, thus far, men seem to be overrepresented among COVID-19 casualties, women are more likely to suffer disproportionately from the socioeconomic consequences of the virus’ spread. Women make up 70% of health workers globally and provide 75% of unpaid care, looking after children, the sick and the elderly.[xxii] Women are also more likely to be employed in poorly paid precarious jobs that are most at risk, while access to healthcare for sexual and reproductive health will be constrained during the pandemic. In addition, domestic abuse, which affects women disproportionately, has already seen a horrifying surge in places like China and France, and is likely to continue to rise worldwide, as stress, alcohol consumption and financial difficulties – all triggers for violence at home – increase during isolation. [xxiii]

While these aspects affect women globally, they will most likely hit women harder in poorer countries where the health sector is weak, traditional gender roles are deepseated, and the majority are employed in the informal sector. Entrenched gender roles can be seen in the exceptionally high percentage of single mothers in sub-Saharan Africa – 32%, compared to the global average of 13% [xxiv] – while women’s sexual and reproductive healthcare is likely to be sidelined. In Sierra Leone during the Ebola outbreak, for example, more women died of obstetric complications than the infectious disease itself. [xxv] In places with ongoing conflicts, like Mali, Burkina Faso, South Sudan or the Central African Republic, the risks are obviously even greater as healthcare sectors are already under enormous strains, violence normalised and infrastructures weak.

It is utopic and unrealistic to attempt to change gender roles in the midst of a pandemic. However, it is irresponsible not to do a gender analysis of how the measures to contain the spread of the virus will affect women and men, boys and girls differently. Humanitarian aid should take into account these differences, earmarking funds for the disproportionate risk of domestic abuse that women face during quarantine periods. Providing emergency child-care provision, economic security even for informal sector workers and shelters, which can host abused women and children, are aspects that are needed now. Collecting high-quality data about how women and men are affected differently, both by the actual virus and the socio-economic consequences, also needs to be done now, to be better prepared for the next pandemic.

Conclusion

Africa is a large continent with over 50 highly diverse states. Any analysis that attempts to capture the whole continent is deemed to be general, superficial and miss important differences. This brief is no exception. Similarly, any ‘one-size-fits-all response’ to a global epidemic is likely to neglect crucial local variances. This is why it is critical to take into account countryspecific demographic patterns and make sure to communicate with concerned populations. This is not only for the sake of transparency and compliance, but also to improve the efficiency of the measures. Africa has proven to be more resilient than expected in the face of earlier epidemics like Ebola and HIV. One of the reasons for this is, paradoxically, popular distrust of governments and, instead, reliance on families and communities, prompting innovative local solutions. During the Ebola outbreak, smaller community care centres replaced larger hospitals and allowed for closer cooperation between Ebola responders and families, while communities’ self-quarantine measures often proved more effective than heavy-handed whole impositions by the government. [xxvi] Letting communities propose their own ideas of how to control the spread of the virus, while providing the essential epidemiological facts, is one way to take local differences into account. Here it is essential that both men and women are consulted to ensure that diverse gender needs meet fitting responses.

While Africa’s young demographic seems to make the coronavirus less of a lethal threat than in Europe, the political and socioeconomic consequences will most likely hit Africa harder. Their impact risks undermining significant advances made during the past few decades in terms of democratisation, economic growth and improved living conditions. This is why Africa cannot and should not be facing the coming crisis alone. As US and European states struggle to show solidarity among themselves, they should be rigorous in extending solidarity further south and show that slogans of partnership, sister continents and equality actually reflect values and guide action.