October 17 was World Food Day, an event observed in 140 countries and marking the creation of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in 1945. This year events focused on Africa, and across North America over 300 sites were linked up via satellite with a Washington, D.C. panel of experts whose comments were augmented by local panels at each site. In Seattle, Dr. Kevin Danaher – co-author of Betraying the National Interest, excerpted in IC #19 – was a particularly dynamic respondent.
It is no secret that Africa is in trouble: once a net food exporter, today it imports a quarter of what its people need to survive, and imports are increasing. Famine and hunger are a daily reality for millions. But often missing from the news reports is a correct identification of the cause of Africa’s food problems, which the discussion on World Food Day made clear: war, politics, and economics.
The Washington panel – three-fourths African, and comprised of representatives from the Economic Commission for Africa, the World Bank, a coalition of African non-governmental development groups, and the US Agency for International Development (US-AID) spanned the political spectrum and engaged in vigorous debate. But it returned again and again to the prolonged and worsening civil strife, the proliferation of guns (marketed by First and Second World nations), the crushing debt burden (loans made to buy guns, food, and inappropriate technologies), and the failure of existing agricultural and development strategies.
In Africa, farming is actually an occupation in decline. Subsidized U.S. grain surpluses, for example, are dumped in many countries at prices lower than the cost to produce grain locally. Faced with taking a loss on the open market, Africa’s aging farmers grow only enough for their families’ use, while younger people join the influx to the cities. Government policymakers continue to provide subsidized food to keep city populations politically stable – and a vicious circle develops. Most agricultural development has gone into monoculture export crops like coffee and cocoa, whose prices are falling while prices for imported grain increase. Brain drain, caused by political and economic troubles, exacerbates the problem as the skills needed to make changes leak away.
The Seattle panel filled in the picture by pointing out that (1) often the problem is not so much a question of how much food there is, but rather who gets access to it; (2) many US-AID programs which profess to be helping Africa actually do it great economic harm; (3) issues of environmental impact and sustainable development were notably missing from the debate; and (4) contrary to most Washington panelists’ views, Africa needs change, not "stability." Its problems are broad, systemic ones that need to be addressed as a whole.
A few success stories were cited: Ghana and Zimbabwe multiplied their food production thanks to workable land reform measures and market incentives. And Africa clearly has the resources to make the changes necessary – but it will need help. We can best help, said the Seattle panelists, by providing appropriate technical support to develop local food crops that are drought-resistant; by alleviating the crippling debt (equal to 90% of GNP in some countries); and by not dumping food (or guns) into Africa’s markets.
If you want to learn more or to get involved in hunger relief efforts, an excellent (and free) resource is available called Guide to Action. Published by the Campaign to End Hunger, it lists and describes virtually every major hunger organization in the United States, including lobbying, relief, development, and educational groups. Write them at 2701 First Ave., Suite 335, Seattle, WA 98121, or call toll-free (800) 888-8750. An excellent briefing packet called "Global Food Security: Focus on Africa," prepared by the University of Michigan, is also available from the National Committee for World Food Day, 1001 22nd Street NW, Washington, DC 20037.