The emergence of two-tier welfare in Africa has been defined by two interconnected developments. Firstly, a growing understanding that ‘African famine’ is a complex and deep-seated problem, a problem which, in many cases, combines political, environmental-economic and conflict factors. Secondly, in response to this situation a world historic internationalization of public welfare has occurred. Whilst some of the financial aspects of this intervention, in the shape of World Bank, International Monetary Fund and bilateral programmes, have received attention, the simultaneous spread of donor/non-government organization relief-based safety nets has been relatively neglected. During the 1990s, however, policy debate will increasingly centre upon the adequacy or appropriateness of the latter in relation to the modalities of the African crisis. This paper, by first sketching the nature of this crisis, seeks to contribute to this debate by drawing attention to the contradictions and limitations within the emerging safety net system.