Whose Logic? the Local Redistribution of Food Aid Targeting Old and Chronically Sick People in Zambia

By Merten, Sonja; Haller, Tobias | Human Organization, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview
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Whose Logic? the Local Redistribution of Food Aid Targeting Old and Chronically Sick People in Zambia

Merten, Sonja, Haller, Tobias, Human Organization

In 2002-2003, the agro-pastoralist groups in the Kafue Flats of the Southern Province of Zambia were severely affected by famine. Livelihood changes due to an economic crisis decreased the ability of many families to support dependants, and those who were old or chronically ill were often regarded as a mere burden by their relatives. These developments were taken into account by aid agencies that set up criteria to identify the most vulnerable households. Such indicator targeting for food aid resulted at the local level in prioritizing households headed by an old or chronically ill person, regardless of whether the household was in other ways categorized as poor. As a consequence, households headed by less impoverished elder people, particularly if they had political power, were also able to gain access to relief food for their own benefit. Meanwhile, other elderly persons were expected to share relief food (voluntarily or not) with their relatives due to the increasing destitution of the poorer strata of the population. Local priority setting rarely accorded with the logic of the aid organizations, but instead prioritized firstly those who had to work hardest, then children. Ultimately, local power structures and notions of entitlement determined the distribution of food aid irrespective of officiai targeting aims.

Key words: Drought, food aid, food security, institutional analysis, Zambia


The 2002-2003 food crisis in Southern Africa, triggered by a drought the year before, severely affected several provinces in Zambia. The Zambian National Vulnerability Assessment Committee (ZNVAC) estimated that 22-26 percent of the population was in need for food assistance, with up to 83 percent of households in need in the worst affected districts (ZNVAC 2002). But food aid was not available as predicted, despite the timely forecast of expected food shortages and price rises, partly related to politicized discussions about the acceptability of donations of genetically modified maize (Zerbe 2004). To allocate available relief food, priorities were set identifying particularly vulnerable groups as beneficiaries. These included female-, child-, and elderly-headed households, as well as households with members who were chronically ill or disabled (Lewis 2002). In this article, we examine the targeting and re-distribution of relief food during the food crisis in one of the chiefdoms in the Southern Province of Zambia. We investigate how the inclusion criteria of the NGO, developed on the basis of ideas of vulnerability and social welfare, contradicted local strategies to cope with food shortages based on local ideas of social obligations, reciprocity, and productivity. Specifically, we address the importance given to the elderly and chronically ill by the government and NGOs, contrast this with the status of these people in local society, and analyze the intrafamily redistribution of food to identify potential conflicts with targeting goals.

Targeting of Food Aid

Food is a critical resource in maintaining human health and productivity, and in acute hunger crises, food aid is politically well accepted provided the targeting is adequate (Barrett 2002; Barrett and Maxwell 2005; Marchione 2005; Shoham 2004). Targeting starts on the macro level. Food aid needs to be directed to countries in need, must arrive in time, and must be in an acceptable form (Barrett and Maxwell 2005). On the micro level, decisions have to be made about which groups and persons are most in need, when and where they need it, and in which form, quantity, and modality. In this respect, various operational approaches have been developed to minimize targeting errors (Sharp 2001). These micro-level approaches bear different strengths and weaknesses. Indicator targeting (externally defined inclusion criteria such as age, gender, and health status) may include the socially weakest, but may miss other vulnerable groups. Self-targeting programs such as food-for-work programs may not be applicable during the peak of drought-induced food crises if it draws labor from planting activities.

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Whose Logic? the Local Redistribution of Food Aid Targeting Old and Chronically Sick People in Zambia


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