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Update/The African famine

The African famine has spawned a small publishing boom as food experts look past the immediate crisis to the underlying causes of food shortages -- and toward long-term strategies to make the continent self-sufficient. Specialists point to a growing number of books, ``think tank'' monographs, articles, and congressional reports that examine Africa's food crisis and the changes needed to prevent the recurrence of famine.

One common denominator: There's more to famine than just bad weather. Studies point to political, social, and historical factors at work.

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Unless these are addressed, no amount of short-term aid and no amount of rain will save Africa from future famine cycles.

Another: Ignoring rural Africa has made the continent vulnerable to food shortages. Failing to pay attention to Africa's smallhold farmers, most experts agree, has left few to fill the void created by growing populations and bad weather.

Other causes:

Rising foreign debt and declining commodity prices in Africa have depleted the resources available for food imports or for agricultural reforms.

Use of Western development techniques by foreign aid donors which emphasize large-scale, capital-intensive, high-technology projects that are often inappropriate to African needs and circumstances.

Pricing policies by African governments that favor urban consumers, leading to the neglect of rural farms and infrastructure.

Government policies, reinforced by debt repayment requirements of the International Monetary Fund, that encourage African farmers to grow for export instead of domestic consumption.

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Aid policies that have made it cheaper for African nations to import food rather than expand their own food-producing capabilities.

Also, recent studies point to perennial problems of poor climate and soil, high population growth rates, rapid urbanization, and fragile political institutions.

Solutions: Nearly all researchers agree that one key to self-sufficiency in the future will be rejuvenating small-scale agriculture in Africa.

That means structural reforms to increase incentives for food production -- in particular, the dismantling of agricultural pricing boards that regulate the movement and pricing of farm products in most African nations.

Experts also underscore the need for more extensive family planning efforts.

One bright spot: Prospects for one agency that does look after African smallholders appear brighter.

IFAD -- the International Fund for Agricultural Development, an arm of the United Nations -- has been caught in a funding dispute between donors from the West and the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. Reagan administration officials say they won't contribute to the agency's second three-year replenishment unless OPEC sticks to the 42 percent funding share it assumed in the first operating cycle.

IFAD officially ran out of money for new projects last April. But new foreign aid authorizing legislation agreed to by House and Senate conferees last week earmarks $100 million for the agency.

Congressional sources acknowledge that the move weakens administration threats to hold out unless OPEC goes along.

``But it's our view the issue can't wait,'' says one committee aide.

``It's Congress's way of saying right up front that the money will be available.''

Congress will vote on the foreign aid legislation following the August recess.

This column, keeping readers abreast of the famine and relief efforts, will appear most Fridays. The column will be compiled by George D. Moffett III while David Willis is on vacation.

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