This is the first part of a two-part article which stresses the need to move away from short term emergency measures to a more general system of social security. A weakness in much of the thinking on food security in Sudan is its conception of a normally self-provisioning peasantry which is pushed into distress only as a consequence of exceptional external conditions. Food catastrophes are therefore seen as, essentially, temporary phenomena requiring emergency interventions. This article proposes a different view: that the commercial development of Sudan has engendered a crisis of subsistence synonymous with the collapse of indigenous support systems, the spread of absolute poverty and the erosion of the country's resource base. In the North this situation has come about through economic means and in the South through war. The spread of absolute poverty and the resulting vicious struggle for scarce resources cannot, however, be separated from the decay in governance. Part I of the article attempts to establish the interconnections between these elements and thereby to indicate the problems which a system of social security would have to overcome. Part II will examine the institutional consequences of the crisis, namely the imposition of a donor-led system of social security.