Based on a paper by Alex de Waal, Sudan Rights Programme, Inter-Africa Group

Background: Famine in Sudan

Sudan is a potentially wealthy country, but it has become chronically vulnerable to famine. It is conventional for drought, desertification, and mistakes in economic policy to be blamed for famine. All these play their role, and drought at least is beyond human agency. But none of these problems makes famine inevitable: famine occurs through the operation of a political, military, economic and social system.

This is evident in the killing famine in Bahr el Ghazal in 1998. This massive human tragedy is only the last in a long series of famines that has struck Sudan since the early 1980s. This paper will not provide a history or political economy of famine in Sudan, but a brief overview of the tragedies of the last fifteen years is required.

The current disaster in Bahr el Ghazal is a product of long term and short term factors including the following:

The prospects for a swift end to this famine are not good.

This famine, and the sheer expense and effort required from foreign donors, have their own political ramifications, including desperation among sections of the Southern Sudanese population demanding an immediate end to the war, and impatience and frustration among donor governments who argue that they cannot afford to spend so much of their taxpayers money with no end to the suffering in sight. Donors are also asking if their assistance is in fact prolonging the war, because of the abuse of food aid to support the war effort on both sides.

Turning to the recent historical record, the drought of 1983-4 became a killing famine because of the exploitative economic relations that had developed, the profiteering of some traders and banks and above all because of the wilful negligence of the Nimeiri government that denied the existence of the crisis until it was too late, as well as refusing to take action to prevent it. The famine in the South that began in 1986, reached its peak in northern Bahr el Ghazal in 1988, and has continued intermittently ever since, was created, often deliberately, by militias and armed forces. Besieged Southern towns have suffered famine because of the war, including mass displacement of people, destruction of productive potential, collapse in employment, and the interruption of commercial or relief food supplies. The famine of 1990-1 in the north was wholly preventable: it came about because of the NIF regime's reckless export of food reserves and its refusal to change its policies or accept relief. This was a particularly significant famine because it affected urban areas including Khartoum, and even middle-class families felt its effects. It illustrated the dependence of the core areas of northern Sudan on food imports and mechanised food production in central and eastern Sudan, and the vulnerability of large sections of the population to disruptions in that food supply system. The famine of 1991-3 in the Nuba Mountains was a direct result of the war strategy followed by the government, which to this day still refuses to allow humanitarian assistance into the non-government held areas. The famine that affected many parts of the Red Sea hills in 1996-7 was the outcome of a long history of government neglect and exploitation, culminating in repression targeted at the Beja, which involves preventing herders and commercial traders from moving freely. The media attention given to the current famine in Bahr el Ghazal should also not obscure the fact that there is serious hunger in other parts of Southern Sudan, as well as the Nuba Mountains, Blue Nile and elsewhere.

In all these famines, relief arrived too little too late, or (in the case of the Nuba in 1991-3) not at all. In many cases, relief was stolen or obstructed. These relief failures are a serious problem. But relief failure is not in itself the cause of famine; merely a reason for famines to cause even more human suffering than would otherwise have been the case. It would be a big mistake to try to solve the problem of famine by just establishing a better or more efficient relief system.

The reason for the persistence of famine is fundamentally political. No amount of food assistance or technical skill can compensate for a political system that has no interest in providing for its poorest citizens, and indeed sees military or political benefits in inflicting hunger. Specialists have learned enough about famine prevention to be able to ensure that nobody, even in the poorest country, suffering the worst drought, need go hungry. The challenge is to have a political system that ensures that every citizen is able to enjoy the right to food.

Creating freedom from famine in Sudan will require many years of effort. There is much damage to be undone, as regards restoring the productivity of the land, correcting extreme income inequalities and creating conditions for sustained economic growth, including debt relief, reform of macro-economic policies, etc. This paper is not concerned with the details of those policies. It simply recommends that a technical group be convened to study the issues and come with recommendations before a future transitional period. Instead, this paper is concerned with three main issues:

  1. Large parts of Southern Sudan have been reduced to a state of chronic famine. A peace settlement in Southern Sudan at any time in the forseeable future will occur in the context of immense humanitarian need and a massive ongoing international relief effort. These facts will have major implications for politics, human rights and the basic prospects for ordinary people during the transition.
  2. In northern Sudan, immediate humanitarian needs are likely to arise in the first months or even days of a transitional government taking power. Decisions about how those needs are to be met will have far-reaching consequences for human rights and political democracy. Many of these decisions must be taken while the current war continues.
  3. The long-term struggle against famine can be won only with a fundamental shift in the way of addressing the problem. To be more precise, famine cannot be regarded solely as an issue for technical expertise, but must be seen within the domain of human rights and democratic politics.

This does not mean that there is no need for better agricultural, employment, food security and environmental policies. These will all be required. Instead, these policies must be placed within a wider political and human rights framework, so that they can be discussed democratically and all their implications considered.

Freedom from Famine is a Basic Right

At present, famine is not normally discussed within a human rights framework. Despite lip service to the right to food and the role of human rights abuses in 'complex emergencies', famine is treated as a technical-economic malfunction in a country, that requires foreign aid and technical advice, and maybe also domestic charity. This contrasts with the emerging consensus in scholarly analysis, which sees famine as the outcome of political and military processes that involve violations of rights.

Responses to famine and other crises in Sudan have included large relief distribution programmes, food-for-work and other employment schemes, and more sophisticated forms of food security planning. Some of these programmes have been professional and high quality and have met their immediate aims. For example the response to the refugee influxes from Eritrea and Ethiopia in the 1970s was considered a model of its kind. Many other programmes have unfortunately been too small, too late or too badly run. Some have failed because of corruption or political interference. In the war areas, many have simply been blocked. But even where the famine relief programmes have succeeded in their immediate aims of reducing hunger, they have failed to tackle the underlying political reasons why famine continues. This is why technical solutions, while important, can never be enough.

Treating famine in this depoliticised, non-rights manner has had a profound and lasting effect on the politics of food in Sudan. It has made it more difficult to achieve the right to food. Some of the results of the exclusively technical-charitable approach to famine include:

The NIF has proved adept at exploiting opportunity of using food to build its power base. The Islamic banks, the NIF and the Comprehensive Call Islamic relief agencies, working together, have been effective in using food to build up a constituency of support and control. For example, the Islamic banks will provide credit on favourable terms but only to those politically affiliated with the NIF; food distributions will be made but usually only on the basis of conditions such as communities providing conscripts for the Popular Defence Forces, or children for NIF-linked Koranic schools, or people relocating from their ancestral villages to government-run peace camps. This is a negative political use of food.

The political and human rights crisis in Sudan today is inextricably linked to the food crisis and the way it has been handled over the last twenty years. The current model of providing aid to Sudan and distributing that aid has contributed to the lack of democracy and the continuation of war and dictatorship.

There is an alternative approach, which can be followed under a future transitional government. It consists of the following:

The importance of reforming assistance to Sudan to make it compatible with a human rights approach to famine is made more urgent by the likelihood of major humanitarian needs during a future transitional period. It follows that preparations for a democratic humanitarianism should begin now.

Enduring Famine in Southern Sudan

It seems tragically inevitable that an agreement to end the war in Southern Sudan will coincide with continuing famine. Even if the current famine in Bahr el Ghazal is over, it is probable that other parts of Southern Sudan will be facing similar conditions.

The end of the war will automatically lead to certain improvements, including the following:

But certain factors will remain unchanged, and in some respects life may even become more difficult:

Managing these problems will be a major challenge for a new Southern government (whether regional, federal, confederal or independent). The South will be in ruins, and the number of professional people is few. The institutions for handling aid and rehabilitation are also very weak. Some of the issues and possible responses include the following:

There is a host of other short-term technical and policy issues which will need careful study. Southern Sudanese political movements, civil organisations and NGOs should begin studying these issues without delay. It is important that the guiding principles of ensuring the right to food and democratising aid should be laid down at the outset.

A Likely Crisis in Northern Sudan

In northern Sudan, a future transitional period will probably see four sets of urgent problems relating to food security:

  1. If the war intensifies in the north/east, or the economic crisis deepens, a new government may well inherit a food crisis centered on the cities of the north. It is quite possible that mechanised agriculture will practically be at a standstill due to lack of fuel and insecurity in the production areas, that irrigation systems will be disrupted, and that food imports will have been interrupted. This will create massive shortages of food in the market, very high prices, and widespread hunger. It would be a famine quite different to most recent rural famines. Displaced people around the northern towns, poor rural people (especially pastoralists and wage labourers) and poorer town-dwellers will be worst hit. Even middle-class people may well be affected. (These people are often overlooked by current relief programmes.) Solving such a crisis will be a major challenge to a new government and decisions that it makes during the early days could have a crucial impact on its options and agenda, even its viability.
  2. Serious humanitarian needs will persist in the opposition-held areas of the Nuba Mountains, southern Blue Nile and the Beja Hill, requiring intensified operations by the humanitarian agencies operational in these areas.
  3. A new government will inherit a macro-economic crisis. Sudan is deeply in debt, suspended from the IMF, ineligible for assistance from the United States and most of Europe, and will face an immediate fiscal and foreign exchange crisis. Donors move slowly. It may take several years for the US Congress to lift some mandatory restrictions on aid to Sudan. Emergency assistance may arrive quickly but the new government will find its hands tied by strict donor conditionalities, some of them imposed on the previous government that have not been removed. Some of the most powerful donors and international financial institutions will be more concerned about the debt and macro-economic policy than any immediate humanitarian crisis, and will not be merciful.
  4. The existing structures and mechanisms for humanitarian assistance are likely to prove an obstacle to establishing a workable democratic system. There are three main points here.


In these circumstances, there is a danger that a transitional government, which faces a range of simultaneous political, constitutional and perhaps military problems, will simply take the easiest steps on the issue of food security. That course would be to:

This would be very unfortunate. The rural majority in Sudan would have strong reasons to become disillusioned with 'democracy'. They would find themselves locked into a familiar cycle of exploitation, neglect and hunger. Sudanese people have experienced enough to know that famine is not a short term problem requiring only relief, but a more fundamental political and economic problem requiring radical reforms.

For all its failings, the NIF has delivered some tangible benefits to many people, in the form of small-scale credit, the provision of essential services etc. To remove these modest gains while putting nothing in their place is a recipe for discontent.

A major relief programme run in this manner would also create a set of powerful institutional interests and therefore a focus of power struggle. Political forces would become more consumed with trying to win the favour of foreign donors and establish control over a powerful and wealthy aid bureaucracy. This would leave them less responsive to the demands of their constituents.

Towards a Democratic Humanitarianism

An alternative approach is to create a democratic humanitarianism. Central to this approach is freedom from hunger as a basic human right.

Historically, the right to food has been seen as an economic right, separate from civil and political rights such as the right to political representation, freedom of expression and calling political leaders to account. Delivering economic development or freedom from famine has long been used as an excuse for repressive regimes. Apart from the dubious practice of trading off one set of human rights against another, history shows that this does not work. Sudanese history is a classic demonstration of this. The rule of President Nimeiri ended in a cataclysm of hunger, and the current NIF government has created famines, on a national scale in 1990-91 and at a regional level every year since then. But Sudanese history also shows that simply establishing the superstructure of a liberal democracy is not enough either, as demonstrated by the famine that occurred during the last parliamentary period.

This approach is different: it sees the right to food as closely bound up with these democratic rights. We need both the right to food and democratic rights. We can have both democracy and freedom from famine, if the right to food is an issue for civil and political mobilisation.

Simply granting civil and political liberties is not enough. Sudanese democrats and human rights activists also need to ensure that the right to food is on the agenda for those who are exercising their civil and political rights: to vote, to stand for election, to speak and write freely, to meet and protest, to organise etc. One possible outcome is that there might be a political party, representing small farmers and other poor people, whose political agenda is food security. But it is more probable that if the great mass of voters, who are poor and who have suffered from hunger, demand that their representatives pay attention to food security, then all parties will have to represent the right to food.

Note that the right to food is not the right to relief food. If the government merely guarantees the right to relief food, what it will be doing is leaving intact all the wider structures that create poverty and famine, and simply guaranteeing that there is enough relief to prevent the poorest from dying from starvation. The right to food includes the right to produce food or to have an income to acquire food. It is in fact the right to a livelihood.

Enforcing these rights is not simple. Structures for political representation and participation are always influenced by the interests of the powerful. It will need hard work for them to be effective in representing the needs of the hungry.

Reforms are needed, in the following respects, at least.

  1. The main political parties, which are likely to form a transitional government, should acknowledge the right to food and governmental responsibility for preventing famine. The government's duty to prevent famine could be laid down in law, the civil service code or even in the constitution. This acknowledgement can be the basis for a change in popular attitudes towards responsibility for famine, and a move away from the fatalism cultivated by the last few governments.
  2. A counterpart to asserting the right to food is criminalising the denial of the right to food. Some existing laws exist that can be used to serve this end. Others can be adopted (e.g. elements of the Geneva Conventions) or drafted afresh.
  3. In rural areas at local level, greater democracy is needed. Most famines strike at remote rural communities. There is a danger that even though national level democratic institutions institute anti-famine measures, these will be ignored or abused by local political authorities. Previous parliamentary regimes have coexisted with rural dictatorships, either in the form of native authorities or military governors: much of the creation of famine and blocking of relief in the 1986-9 period was the work of local authorities. Ironically it was the military regime of Jaafar Nimeiri that allowed more participation at regional and local level. We need both central and local democracy.
  4. Displaced people are currently disenfranchised. The displaced need a structure of representation that will guarantee them a voice in democratic decision making, especially regarding their right to food and other essentials. That right should be guaranteed even though they may be unable to vote in their displaced localities.
  5. All levels of government need to be far more open and transparent about aid negotiations and aid resources. In the past, elections have been the occasion for the most blatant misuse of aid funds, and for politicians to make grand promises about the delivery of aid. This is possible only because ordinary people do not have access to the aid decision-making process, so they have no option but to believe aspiring politicians who turn up with aid agencies at their shoulders promising food relief or development projects. In this way, aid can undermine the entire democratic process by turning it into an auction of aid bribes. Strict regulation is necessary to prevent this happening. The basic requirement is for all aid negotiations and aid budgets to be made public, so that voters know what is available. It might also be necessary to prohibit financial transactions between aid agencies and candidates who stand for election, or to suspend aid negotiations during the campaigning period.
  6. The entire aid delivery system needs to be made more transparent and democratic. The aid agencies themselves need to be subject to complete democratic scrutiny. Elements of this include publication of aid budgets, democratising aid negotiations, and creating an ombudsman to hear complaints against aid agencies. The ideal is to move towards the 'fund-holding' or 'take it' model of aid, whereby the donors hand over the resources to the recipient government, which dispenses them under democratic scrutiny, and then reports back and/or invites monitoring. This will take some time.
  7. Democratic politicians need to plan in advance for the wider economic policy challenges that they will face in a future transition.

These reforms, in themselves, will not be sufficient to create political guarantees against famine. That will depend upon Sudanese people mobilising to defend their rights to be free from famine, using democratic political methods. This cannot be legislated for, but it can be encouraged and above all, measures that impede it can be prevented.


The following ideas should be considered in advance of the transition:

1. To introduce more accountability for politicians responsible for the creation of famine.

(i) Those allegedly responsible for violating the articles in the Geneva Conventions that prohibit the use of starvation as a method of war should be brought before the Special Prosecutor.

(ii) Those who allegedly acted in a straightforwardly criminal manner (for example selling relief food) can be prosecuted, either by the Special Prosecutor or in an ordinary court.

(iii) Those allegedly responsible for criminal negligence in failing to prevent starvation can also be prosecuted.

2. To introduce more transparency into the delivery of humanitarian relief in Sudan.

3. To handle the specific challenges of famine and humanitarian action in Southern Sudan:

4. To minimise the hazards of the northern Sudanese crisis scenario outlined above occurring in the early days of a transitional government:

· Sudanese opposition leaders and their friends should prepare now to find a way to handle the key macro-economic issues, including government finance, debt, relations with donors, and key financial and economic institutions. Details of this go beyond the scope of this paper. A working group on economic and humanitarian issues could be convened to discuss these issues with donors and humanitarian organisations.

· The Sudanese democratic forces should begin to build alternative humanitarian and economic institutions. Establishing effective relief organisations is one step but it is important to remember that other actions to maintain agricultural production and marketing, employment and infrastructure will be extremely important as well.

5. To create a democratic humanitarianism

The success of these proposals will depend on a degree of compliance by international agencies. But the reluctance of aid donors, the UN and NGOs should not be a reason for delay. Sudanese organisations should start the process at once.