Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Donor nations seek long-term solutions to famine in Africa

Now awake to the need, the world has rushed some $2 billion in emergency food aid to hungry, drought-stricken Africa, according to estimates by the US Agency for International Development (AID). The United States, it appears, will have contributed about half that amount by the end of the current fiscal year. It has provided some $400 million in food aid so far this fiscal year, and last week the House of Representatives voted to contribute an additional $700 million. The Senate has yet to vote, but it is expected to follow suit.

Africa food experts say emergency relief has been the easy part of the problem. Now comes the hard part: finding long-term solutions to the underlying causes of famine in Africa.

About these ads

``We have to look into the long-term solutions now,'' says US Rep. Mickey Leland (D) of Texas, chairman of the House Select Committee on Hunger. ``Unless we solve the long-term problem we'll have a perpetual short-term problem on our hands. We can provide all the food in the world to countries like Ethiopia today, but if we don't go in there and retrofit the agricultural infrastructure for the long term, those we've fed today will be starving tomorrow.''

If the long-term need is not met, adds a recent World Bank report, Africa could face a ``nightmare'' for the balance of the century.

Though experts say that meeting the long-term need will be far more complex politically, conversations with a variety of specialists in public and private relief agencies hint at an emerging consensus on two main approaches to the problem.

The first involves making structural reforms in African economies to make it more worthwhile for farmers to grow more food.

One reason Africa is short of food is that there are no incentives for small farmers, in particular, to grow food, since government-run agricultural pricing boards have adopted policies that favor urban consumers over rural producers.

The result is that, just as rapidly growing populations and bad weather have combined to create the current food crisis, there now are fewer farmers are in business to fill the void.

The way to remedy this, experts say, is by getting governments to change their policies and dismantle inefficient government monopolies that buy and sell agricultural goods, by paying farmers more to grow their crops, and by raising food prices in the cities, prices which are kept artificially low for political reasons.

About these ads

``Most African governments have strangulated private initiative,'' says Chester A. Crocker, US assistant secretary of state for African affairs. ``There needs to be more incentive in more countries to enable people to make a profitable return. There's a strong tendency to subsidize people who live in the urban areas where the political power base is. That's understandable politically, but it's led to a situation that's produced distortions in the agricultural economy of many African states.''

But changing pricing policies entails major political risks. To help minimize such risks, institutions like the World Bank and AID have begun ``structural adjustment programs,'' usually in the form of balance-of-payments support. The programs provide more foreign exchange for African governments to devalue currencies, restructure institutions, buy food, or import more consumer goods to blunt the political impact of higher food prices in urban areas.

One AID official says: ``It's extra money to help them over the hump. It's a way we can reinforce the people who want to make the needed changes.''

A World Bank spokesman adds, ``It's our way of responding to courageous decisions of governments which are trying to put their economic houses in order.''

AID and World Bank officials agree that structural reform will not be an overnight process. But they also agree that this will be one of the mainstays of future efforts to deal with the African food problem over the long term.

The second approach to the long-term food problem, experts say, is agricultural reform -- in particular, technical help to rejuvenate the small farm in Africa.

According to a recent World Bank report, most of the agricultural assistance that went to Africa during the 1970s was used to fund large-scale, government-operated estates patterned after Western agricultural methods and involved heavy capital outlays for mechanization and irrigation. Little of the aid reached the rural areas where 70 percent of all Africans still live.

Experts now say that the key to Africa's food future will be national and multilateral development aid refocused on smaller-scale, more-intensive agriculture at the grass-roots level, where several private voluntary organizations (PVOs) have been involved for years.

The new emphasis on self-sustaining, small-scale agriculture is reflected in a major initiative announced last month by the Peace Corps. The new Peace Corps program will bring together teams of specialists to train the small farmers who produce most of Africa's food.

According to Peace Corps director Loret Ruppe, the new program seeks to harness experts in such disciplines as soil conservation, food processing, and agricultural marketing to assist AID and other private and national relief organizations. ``We've had countless individual successes in Africa during the past 24 years,'' says Mrs. Ruppe, ``but we've never put all the parts together in just this way till now.'' She says the new Africa food initiative is part of an effort designed to make Africa self-sufficient.

Both PVOs and multilateral organizations agree that raising the output and income of small farmers will be the key to self-sufficiency in the future. ``The massive potential of small holds,'' says the World Bank report, ``has yet to be realized.''

Despite agreement on the need for structural reforms and renewed attention to Africa's small-hold farmers, major obstacles still lie ahead.

For one thing, there are the perennial problems of poor climate and soil, high population growth rates, and fragile political institutions.

For another, there are external factors that many African leaders say make it impossible to attain self-sufficiency. In particular, many Africans point to declining commodity prices on the world market, which have reduced foreign-exchange earnings, plus external debt, which has risen more than 750 percent during the 1970s, largely because of spiraling oil prices. By next year, debt repayment could amount to close to half of all aid received by the countries involved. Under the circumstances, say African leaders, little money is left over to import needed food or to carry out agricultural reforms.

Another problem that worries some food experts is the diminished commitment of the Reagan administration to the World bank and other multilateral lending institutions.

Reflecting a preference for bilateral aid harnessed to specific national-security objectives, the administration has left open the question of future support for the World Bank and has cut US support for the International Fund for Agricultural Development, a UN agency which over the past six years has spent $400 million on aid to poor African farmers.

The US has also cut funding to the International Planned Parenthood Foundation, one of the principal agencies focusing on Africa's explosive population growth.

``This is shortsighted foreign policy based on narrow ideology,''says Jack Shepard, an Africa food specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. ``Unfortunately, it comes at a time when Africa is facing pressing long-term needs.''

In the meantime, the search continues for new ways to deal with long-term implications of famine.

``It would be a great tragedy if the current drought doesn't awaken the American people to the long-term needs in Africa,'' says Kevin Lowther of Africare, a private relief and development organization based in Washington.

``Africa has an old, fragile environment. If it's not properly cared for, much of Africa's productive capacity could be lost forever.'' -- 30 --

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.