Oxfam says that the number of food emergencies in Africa has tripled since the 1980's.  The international humanitarian organization says that it is time the international community started seeking long-term solutions for the causes of hunger on the continent.

In a just-released study, Oxfam reports that the use of food-aid in emergency situations is only a partial solution that does not address the underlying causes of hunger, which include conflict, HIV/AIDS, or climate change. And, says regional Humanitarian Advocacy Coordinator Nicki Bennett, food aid does not prevent emergencies from arising, year after year.

"For example, here in southern Africa we have seen three years of major food crises in the last five years and we are expecting more cyclical droughts, we know it is going to come again," said Bennett. "And yet, we are still responding to the problem with essentially an emergency mechanism by responding with short-term tools, for example, by relying heavily on food aid to respond to a problem for six months and then hoping it will go away, only for it to reoccur the next year."

The study found that spending on humanitarian assistance by donor countries tripled between 1997 and 2003 to $3 billion; but that assistance for agricultural production in sub-Saharan Africa dropped by 43 percent between 1990 and 2002.

The report notes that the World Food Program obtains nearly half its supplies from the United States, in the form of subsidized farm commodities, and that severely affects countries that have functioning markets. Oxfam has urged donor countries, including the United States, to fund purchases of food aid in local economies to help with a more long-term solution.

Oxfam pilot programs in some African countries have included purchasing livestock from farmers who are no longer able to feed their animals, and, in some countries like Zambia, providing vouchers or cash equal to the value of the food rations needy families would normally have received. Bennett says these programs exceeded expectations because they allowed people to spend the money on different kinds of food.

"But not only was it spent on maize that they would receive in a food distribution, but nutritional diversity, particularly in the Zambian case was increased, because people also spent on other crops like cassava which is increasing in popularity in Zambia, on dried fish on vegetables, on different kinds of products; also on other essential needs such as soap; some of them were also able to use a small portion of the money to buy seeds and fertilizers to plant for the next year," added Bennett.

In another example of how aid can be used, in Mauritania, some communities have planted vegetable gardens that not only offer dietary benefits but also allow growers to sell or exchange surpluses in the local markets.

Oxfam says that African governments must fulfill commitments made in 2003 at the African Union summit to increase spending on agriculture to 10 percent of their national budgets. In addition, Oxfam said, these governments must establish social benefit programs for the chronically impoverished members of their communities.