By Crisford Chogugudza
For a few decades now, Africa has been suffering from persistent food crises due to a number of factors most of which could be avoided. In global terms, food security is perceived to be a basic human right and one which should be defended at all costs. Ironically, in Africa, food insecurity is more prevalent now than ever, with a more hostile environment, many people undernourished and severely dependent on food aid. However, some believe that the underlying cause is just as much persistent poverty as poor productivity. Many agricultural experts blame a variety of factors for the increasingly depressive food insecurity in Africa, and these include the following among other; natural disasters, poor agricultural policies, war and civil conflicts and most importantly a massive lack of interest by the west to invest significantly in African agricultural projects. There is now overwhelming consensus of public opinion amongst agricultural experts that Africa is hypothetically able to feed itself. Africa could even export food if right agricultural policies supported by long term western financial support are put in place. A new package of support modelled in the shape of the acclaimed Marshall plan is urgently required to revitalise the agricultural sector in Africa especially food production.
The Marshall Plan was first launched by US Secretary of State George C. Marshall on June 5 1947, in the aftermath of World War II, as a program of assistance to the countries of Europe. At a time when great cities lay in ruins and national economies were devastated, Marshall called on America to "do whatever it is able to do to assist in the return of normal economic health in the world, without which there can be no political stability and no assured peace." The U.S. Congress approved Marshall's long-sighted proposal in 1948, and by 1952 the United States had channelled some $13 billion in economic aid and technical assistance to 16 European countries. During the program's four years, participating countries saw their aggregate gross national product rise more than 30 percent and industrial production increase by 40 percent over pre-war levels. (usinfo.state.gov).
When the Marshall Plan was unveiled, it was the only hope for economic recovery in Europe and it worked with support from only one major industrial power, the US. However, today the world has more economic players, who if well coordinated through the G8, EU, IMF and World initiatives can raise Africa’s food production to levels comparable to Europe and South America. The Marshall plan still provides the basis with which the Africa Green Revolution can be realised.
The proponents of the African Green Revolution believe that the major challenge to food security in Africa is the underdeveloped and underperforming agricultural sector, with its low fertility soils and minimal use of external farm inputs, as well as other obstacles, including reduced access to markets and subsidized food production in the North. At the start of the 21st century, The Hunger Task Force states, sub-Saharan Africa are witnessing the largest and fastest increase in food insecurity worldwide, with under nourishment rates over 40% – the highest in the world.
According to FAO, Food Security consists of three aspects: food availability, food access and food adequacy. The first pertains to the supply of food, the second the demand for food (including infrastructure), and the last with the fact that food must be sufficient in quality as well as quantity. Food insecurity is no longer simply seen as the failure to produce sufficient food at the national level, but as a failure of livelihoods to guarantee access to sufficient food at the household level – seen in complex inter-linkages between the individual, the household, the community, the nation and the international community.
It is public knowledge that per capita food production has fallen in many African countries. However, this is not the only reason they have remained so prone to famine. Very badly planned development and excessive spending on arms, coupled with external factors such as worsening terms of trade, debt, and crudely conceived structural adjustment policies, have all combined to keep poor countries poor - and make them more susceptible, both to famine, and to conflict. In the cause of Zimbabwe, a chaotic and very poorly funded land reform programme severely depleted this once bread basket of Africa into a country of beggars. This is a typical example of tragic leadership failure that can lead into poverty.
Critics of the food policy of the UN system and the main donor community, argue that food security is very much a matter of politics and that the problem is not shortage of food as such – there is basically enough food in the world – but a question of political will for fair distribution regardless of the consumer’s ability to pay. This view is however; contested by some analysts who feel that even in peaceful African countries where agricultural policies are less controversial lack of money not politics per se is the major impediment to food security. There is a lot of idle land in a number of African countries with good rainfall and fertile soils but lack of financial investment in agriculture, lack of properly trained agricultural experts and farming equipment has worsened the food situation in the continent. Today there are more stable and democratic African countries than ten years ago. These countries have been promised a lot of Aid but not much in food production and related technical assistance which can guarantee food security.
According to the Millennium Project, despite gains in the yields of major food crops, low food production persists in rural areas, especially where agriculture is rain fed. The worst affected areas are those most remote from markets and/or where agricultural production is risky. Poor access to markets means that many farmers are unable to diversify into higher value commodities or add value through processing. Due to poor grain storage and the need for cash, many small-scale farmers are forced to sell their crop at a low price immediately after harvest, only to buy grain back later at a higher price in order to feed their families until the next harvest.
The Millennium Project in 2005 set out initiative called Halving Hunger, meant to examine current world progress towards eliminating hunger, and calls for the implementation of seven recommendations in the areas of: political action, national policy reforms, increased agricultural productivity for food insecure farmers, improved nutrition for the chronically hungry, productive safety nets for the acutely hungry, improved rural incomes and markets, and restoration and conservation of natural resources essential for food security. The above initiatives are meant to be achieved at least by 2015 but there is very little evidence that these targets will be achieved, mostly due to weak commitments from the developed western countries who have the money and other means needed.
UNAIDS believes that HIV/AIDS is also a problem that needs addressing in sub-Saharan Africa as it has reduced the producing power. The pandemic is responsible for devastating the labour force and raising household dependency ratios. The majority of Africans in rural areas have been living at the edge of extreme vulnerability, a situation that has been compounded by HIV/AIDS. Again, there is also need for huge financial commitments in the area of HIV/AIDS which Africa alone cannot afford and this issue is very central to food production in rural Africa.
In support of a Marshal Plan for food security in Africa, a number of initiatives need to be put in place and these should include the following among others; Converting debt relief over and above new financial initiatives specifically aimed at reviving agricultural production for food crops, renewed global attention to the role of agriculture and food in development policy, accelerated public action in African agriculture under the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD), helping Africa develop workable agricultural policies meant to improve food production, improve storage facilities, develop food markets and improve food distribution.
However, due to the prevalence of wars in some African countries, it is important to also look at strategies that confront wars and counter its effects on food security. Many analysts say that famine and war are often intimately linked. There are many ways that armed conflicts can create famine and by which famine is used as a deliberate weapon of war. Most African countries that have experienced war have suffered severe food shortages. The fighting armies can have an immediate impact on food supplies by: demanding food from villagers and depleting their food stocks, diverting food aid intended for the civilian population, deliberately destroying communities, by stealing livestock, burning fields and villages, cutting down trees, poisoning wells, or laying mines, using siege tactics to create famine among the civilian population and destroying transport and other infrastructures that support food mobility. Most African countries spend millions of dollars in military expenditure at the expense of food security for their citizens and this shows lack of prioritisation. The DRC, Angola, Sudan and Somalia have all suffered conflicts in recent times which have affected food security in their countries. Further worsening the food security problem in mostly war torn countries is the inability of humanitarian agencies to provide food supplies due to lack of access to deprived communities.
A Marshal Plan for African food security is a possibility only if the rich countries begin to treat Africa as an important partner not a burden. There is no denying that if the rich west invests into African agriculture, this will increase the continent’s capacity not only to feed itself but to supplement food production in Europe which is on the decline. There are encouraging signs from some important members of the international community in the attempt to confront food insecurity in Africa. The 'Memorandum of Understanding' signed in Rome in June 2008, by the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), and the World Food Programme (WFP) at the FAO High-Level Conference on World Food Security aims to significantly boost food production in Africa's 'breadbasket regions,' link local food production to food needs, and work across Africa's major agricultural growing areas in an attempt to solve Africa's chronic hunger and food problems.
Currently, according to the Brookings Institute Global, the US is by far the largest donor of food aid to Africa. The Aid is channeled through USAID and WFP, it is aimed at poverty alleviation among other reasons. The reasoning behind the US assistance is that poverty undermines U.S. national security by facilitating the emergence and spread of transnational security threats, including disease, environmental degradation, crime, narcotics flows, proliferation and terrorism. First, poverty substantially increases the risk of conflict, which in turn creates especially fertile breeding grounds for such threats. Second, poverty erodes weak states' capacity to prevent or contain transnational threats
It is also true that the only way emerging major powers such as Russia, China and India can have their impact felt more effectively, is through an increase in their levels of commitment towards resolving conflict and food problems in developing countries particularly in Africa. What Africa needs today is food aid not guns or related military assistance. The US and the EU have for many years been very dominant in the developing world and indeed in Africa, due to their altruism and philanthropic activities aimed at helping the poor. Individuals and organisations such as Bill Gates and the Rockefeller Foundation respectively, have played a key role in promoting food security particularly in Africa through the Green Revolution in Africa. Billionaires in Russia, India and the wealthy Arab countries need to take a que from the American initiatives and of course, if this happens over and above other initiatives already in place a Marshall Plan for Africa could be a living reality. The other dimension of food security is the absence of working democracies and economies that can support and guarantee this imperative.
Attempts to address Africa’s food security should be seen as a positive development as this reduces the Food Aid burden on rich western countries and create opportunities for reinvesting funds to other needy areas elsewhere. Food security in Africa has rapidly changed from being ‘an issue for them’ to a major global food security concern. As such, investment in agriculture should continue to attract huge interest from the west. Many in Africa and indeed the west, believe sustainable food security may be difficult to achieve but not impossible. The Marshall plan is still relevant in Africa and it may just be the right time now to consider the crucial lessons from this highly successful US initiative, which helped turn Europe from war ashes to the milk and honey they enjoy today. It is fair to mention that there are very positive initiatives being put in place to ensure the success of the Africa Green Revolution. However, there is need for an all inclusive single, well coordinated multibillion dollar approach driven by the United Nations, and specifically targeted at ensuring the Africa Green Revolution becomes a reality. Food security in Africa should be given the same attention and level of importance as fighting global terrorism.
Food for thought.
Crisford Chogugudza is AfricaResource Political Columnist.