Why is Africa still hungry?

Somali refugees wait for precious food handouts at Dadaab camp

FROM the cliff of television screens in western homes, images of emaciated African children with throngs of flies buzzing over their parched mouths fall like boulders, crashing audiences into an outpouring of sympathy and philanthropy.

Purveyed by the global media on an industrial scale, this harrowing pornography of human suffering has become standard fare in humanitarian appeals by western aid agencies in response to perennial famine on the African continent. Despite accusations of perpetuating negative stereotypes of the African condition, this formula has worked quite effectively for the aid agencies in mobilising massive amounts of food and basic necessities for humanitarian relief on the continent.

But after generations of disaster shock therapy, aid agencies fear that citizens of richer societies may have been fatigued by the unending cycle of suffering and helplessness. The slow global response to the current famine in the Horn of Africa, where the UN says tens of thousands – mostly children -have died so far, is a case in point.

Donor fatigue thus poses serious concerns for those facing acute food shortages because western humanitarian relief remains the most visible intervention and often makes the difference between life and death in situations of serious hunger. This unpalatable reality sorely underlines Africa’s woeful incapacity to come to the aid of its own in times of famine.

According to the UN Millenium Development Goals report for 2011 released last month, African children remain the most undernourished in the world, with countries such as Ethiopia, Mozambique, Zambia, Angola and the DRC among the most vulnerable. ‘The poorest of the world are being left behind. We need to reach out and lift them into our lifeboat,’ UN chief Ban Ki-moon said during the launch of the report in Geneva.

‘Based on current trends, sub-Saharan Africa will be unable to meet the hunger-reduction target by 2015,’ the UN reported. By contrast, South-Eastern Asia, Eastern Asia and Latin America and the Caribbean are said to be on course to meet the target.

Stephen Devereux, an expert in food security and rural livelihoods at the University of Sussex who has worked in East and Southern Africa, says that during the twentieth century, famine was effectively eliminated from most regions of the world except Africa. ‘There has been no famine in Europe since the 1940s, in East Asia since the 1960s, or in South Asia since the 1970s,’ he observed. Ethiopia recorded the continent’s worst famine in 1984-5 when an estimated 590,000 people died.

Internally displaced women await assistance in Mogadishu

But why are contemporary famines exclusively confined to Africa? In the first decade of the twenty-first century, Africa saw famines in Ethiopia, Malawi and Niger (in 2000, 2002 and 2005, respectively), and the second has kicked off this year with hunger and death in the Horn of Africa. The UN says East Africa is experiencing the worst drought in 60 years, with more than 10 million people threatened by starvation in four countries - Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya and Djibouti.

In its Global Information and Early Warning System for June 2011, the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) identified 30 countries requiring external assistance for food, 23 of which are in Africa. The reasons given for their need include exceptional shortfall in aggregate food production or supplies, widespread lack of access, and severe localised food insecurity.

According to FAO’s East Africa representative Mafa Chipeta, Africa consumes about 33 per cent off global food aid with Eastern Africa, which holds 3.6 per cent of the world’s population, consuming nearly 20 per cent of global food aid in normal years and more during drought periods.

‘In most African countries, food production is rising slower than population. For instance, in Southern Africa, between 1980-2001, cereals output rose
3 per cent whilst population grew by 34 per cent,’ he observed.

In Chipeta’s view, fast population growth coupled with the kind of armed conflicts that have blighted countries such as the DRC, Somalia, and Eritrea and Ethiopia have undermined agriculture. ‘In addition, there is inadequate public investment for agriculture, poor incentives to producers, and instability of policies and approaches to development,’ he added.

In a paper titled ‘Why does famine persist in Africa’, Devereux contends that famines in Africa are the outcome of three main causes: production failure owing to droughts, environmental processes and population issues; exchange failure, or economic reasons determining food availability and affordability, and response failure by governments and aid agencies to intervene to protect household food security following supply and/or demand failures.

It was Indian economist and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen who broke down the sources of all legal food to three – production, exchange (purchase or barter), and transfers (including food aid); and famine occurs when all three have failed.
According to Devereux, ‘food production and/or market access to food might fail, leaving people vulnerable to starvation, but a famine only occurs once there is also a failure of response - lack of transfers of food or cash to buy food’. He argues that the recurrence of humanitarian appeals in Africa reflects failures of policy to address fundamental vulnerabilities in African livelihood systems, which requires a range of pre-emptive measures and broader developmental interventions.

‘[A] concerted effort to eradicate famine in Africa requires intervening to reduce vulnerability and risk in each of the three areas discussed above: production, exchange, and response,’ he suggested.

Tackling production risks means addressing the vulnerability to food insecurity of the smallholder farmers who dominate the continent’s agricultural regions and who often grow a single or narrow range of crops for subsistence. Climate change is likely to make this situation worse, with the projected invariability of rainfall set to make planning difficult and harvests more precarious.

Devereux suggests that interventions to address this fundamental vulnerability could include more support to farmers, specifically, renewed research into high-yielding and drought-tolerant crops to stabilise yields, and subsidised access to agricultural inputs and credit to boost yields.

Africa needs to support smallholder farmers to increase food output
‘In this context, the recent reintroduction by governments in Malawi and elsewhere of fertiliser and seed subsidies, usually against donor advice, is an encouraging indicator of renewed public commitment to small farmers,’ he noted.

According to FAO, African governments need to prioritise and implement measures to develop agriculture and sustainable natural resources management to ensure food security for their people. ‘The ‘business as usual’ approach to the climate change problem will not reduce the vulnerability as this vulnerability is exacerbated by existing developmental challenges such as endemic poverty, complex institutional dimensions; limited access to capital, infrastructure and technology; ecosystem degradation; and complex natural disasters and conflicts,’ the organisation said in a paper to its May 2010 regional conference held in Angola.

The FAO report recognised that climate change jeopardises the economic progress achieved by Africa to date ‘due to the substantial diversion of resources required to fund adaptation initiatives. Estimates predict economic losses as a result of climate change as up to 14 per cent of GDP if adaptation measures fail to be implemented.’

Economic liberalisation policies across Africa effectively removed several pillars of food security support for the poor, such as price subsidies or open market operations by agricultural marketing parastatals to stabilise food prices. As a consequence, Devereux has argued, poor food purchasers have no protection against unregulated markets, which can result in staple food prices quadrupling or more within a few months. In the cases of the famines in Malawi and Niger, analysts argued that unaffordable food prices were the main driver of the famine.

Chipeta is more scathing, calling market liberalisation by African governments ‘irresponsible’. ‘ Africa has deregulated trade irresponsibly, opened up to imports even from heavily subsidising countries... Its local products cannot compete even in domestic markets – no other region has been so generous in trade concessions,’ he said, adding that structural adjustment led to the withdrawal of government support for agriculture precipitously, and downsized public sector institutions excessively.

Experts have recommended that weak commodity markets be strengthened or regulated, to protect the market-dependent poor against food price shocks. Devereux and Chipeta agree that building rural infrastructure - especially roads, transport and communications networks - is a prerequisite for integrating rural markets and equilibrating food supply and demand across surplus and deficit areas.

‘Rural investment is too low. There’s severe lack of infrastructure; for example, Africa is at India’s 1950s road density level, and on water use, Africa uses only 4 per cent available for farming in comparison to Asia’s 40 per cent. On fertilisers, Africa is at about 9kg per hectare, OECD countries are at 125kg, whilst East Asia is at about 250kg,’ Chipeta remarked.

Key proposals to address the reality of weak markets include allowing public intervention to correct for market failures. Devereux favours the inclusion of ‘effective management of national or regional grain reserves to stabilise staple food prices - buying grain at low post-harvest prices, storing it and releasing it at cost plus storage costs before the next harvest to dampen ‘hungry season’ price inflation’. On the other hand, farmers also need to be assured of reasonable prices for their produce, to boost smallholder incomes and ensure adequate food supplies.

In recent years, several studies have demonstrated a low correlation between levels of humanitarian need and levels of humanitarian response, and identified the strategic interests of donors as the main determinant of how much attention particular crises receive. The recent famines in Africa were all predicted by various early warning systems but these were ignored, emphasising the need for all sources of information to be treated seriously whilst recognising the potential for misinformation by interested parties.

In response to the goal to eradicate hunger, the African Union, through its Nepad programme, took up the challenge to increase both the amount and quality of food produced on the continent and, by doing so, ‘make families more food-secure, exports more profitable, and improve social and political stability’. It is from this ambitious aim that the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP) was born in 2003. CAADP’s mission is to address policy and capacity issues across the entire agricultural sector and the African continent, and among its key targets is the achievement of agricultural growth rates of at least 6 per cent per annum.

However, it was not until 2007 that the first country, Rwanda, signed the CAADP Compact. By May 2011, 26 countries had incorporated CAADP into their agricultural strategy by signing the CAADP Compact. Without being overly uncharitable, CAADP is yet to make its mark and the fact of its slow endorsement by African countries is sufficient evidence of its effectiveness thus far in the struggle to eliminate extreme hunger in Africa by 2015.

Chipeta has urged Africa to swiftly move beyond adopting declarations and commitments to implementing them and calls for the continent to increase public support for agriculture. ‘Pious hopes are that external partners – and not Africa itself - will fund the Africa-led Nepad [but] the evidence is not encouraging,’ he said.

‘The bottom line is that Africa must urgently boost production and productivity to levels exceeding population growth rate … There is need to reverse much current public policy [and the] key is greater public investment to first create conditions attractive to serious private capital,’ he urged. African governments are encouraged to invest in domestic production rather than buy from the international market when prices are low because they do not have the resources to subsist on cash purchases, food prices will not remain low in future, and food is a national security issue able to threaten political freedom, Chipeta said.

Africa must be wary of argument that when international food prices are low it should buy food rather than invest in domestic production because prices it does not have the money, prices will not remain low, and food is a national security issue able to threaten political freedom.

There is strong currency in the argument that Africa has grown complacent from decades of receiving food relief and must stop acting as if food aid is a right and is a sustainable solution. Development experts say Africa needs to become self-confident about domestic production and follow it up with substantial investment of its own resources. Several countries have begun moving towards CAAPD’s goal to increase their investment in agriculture in relation to their GDP.

A crucial part of this strategy, experts say, is to make farming both competitive and rewarding. Governments are urged to make inputs available and affordable, and ensure protection of local products from unfair competition of subsidised imports by watching inequitable trade and partnership agreements.

With climate change projected to compound Africa’s precarious food security situation, nothing short of durable solutions is required to ensure the elimination of extreme poverty on the continent. According to Ban Ki-Moon, ‘It means climate-smart crop production, livestock rearing, fish farming and forest maintenance practices that enable all people to have year-round access to the nutrition they need’.