The African food crisis of 1982–1986


  • *This paper was prepared for the ESRC Conference on “Rural Transformation in Tropical Africa” University of Birmingham, 23–24th September 1986.

†John Borton is Research Associate, Relief and Development Institute

‡Edward Clay is Director, Relief and Development Institute and Fellow of the Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex


The crisis cannot be attributed to any one cause, but rather it was the product of a number of interacting factors whose precise combination varied between countries. Drought, internal political and economic factors and an unfavourable external economic environment were significant contributory factors. Civil war and externally financed insurgency were primarily responsible for propelling a food crisis into a famine in four out of the six worst affected countries. Within the literature, there is a tendency for writers to emphasize the relative contribution of factors within their own disciplines.

So far the literature on the responses, both within country and internationally, is comprised of eye witness accounts by journalists and evaluations by aid agencies of their performance. The international response by governments and the public was massive and unprecedented, but the response by governments, indigenous NGO's and the public within affected countries is often overlooked by the journalistic literature. Generalizations about “the African food crisis” have obscured the considerable diversity amongst countries. This is well illustrated by the experiences of Ethiopia, Kenya and Botswana.

This diversity indicates the biased perspectives that arise from focussing on the extreme famines, as in Ethiopia. Research priorities should include studies of systems that coped during the crisis, historical analysis of the crisis, the way early warning information is processed within bureaucratic institutions, environmental degradation and fully integrated analysis of food production and consumption systems.