GLOBALLY, 108 million people faced food crises in 2016 — 35 per cent more people compared with about 80 million in 2015, according to the 2017 Global Report on Food Crises. In addition, there were about 123 million people in stressed situation, resulting in around 230 million food-insecure people in 2016. The majority of them, about 72 per cenbt, were in Africa. According to the Global Hunger Index 2016, the highest hunger levels are in Sub-Saharan Africa. The FAO data reveal that the number of hungry people (undernourished) in Africa increased from about 182 million in the early 1990s to around 233 million in 2016 while globally the number declined from about 1 billion to approximately 795 million.
This is an irony as Africa has the highest proportion of potential arable land. According to a 2012 FAO report, except for Northern Africa, between 21 per cent and 37 per cent of the land area in Africa faces few climate, soil or terrain constraints to rain-fed crop production.
Why Africa’s poor predicament?
OBSERVERS identify higher population growth, natural calamities and conflicts as major factors. Food price hikes on the international market, too, have contributed to African hunger as Africa has become a net food importer since the 1980s despite its vast agricultural potential.
But the greatest damage was done by the IMF’s structural adjustment programmes (SAPs) during the 1980s and 1990s, supported by the World Bank and the donor community through their aid conditionality. One of the first casualties of SAPs was public investment. African countries were told that they need not invest in agriculture as importing would be cheaper. Instead, they should skip agricultural development and go straight into an industrial era. Tragically, under SAPs, Africa de-industrialised while its agriculture was neglected.
According to the 2102 FAO report, in 1980, Africa’s investment in agriculture was more or less comparable with those of Latin America and Caribbean (LAC). But in the case of LAC, agricultural investment increased roughly 2.6 times between 1980 and 2007 whereas in Africa, it increased only 1.7 times. During the same period, Asia’s agricultural investment went from three to eight times higher than that of Africa.
Thus, Africa’s agricultural productivity not only suffered, but African agriculture also became less resilient to climate change and extreme weather conditions. Africa is now in a similar situation as Haiti, where food agriculture was destroyed by subsidised cheap imports from the United States, as admitted by president Clinton in the wake of Haiti’s devastating earthquake in 2010.
Between 1980 and 2007, Africa’s total net food imports in real term grew at 3.4 per cent a year, according to the aforementioned FAO report, whereas in 1980, it had an almost balanced agricultural trade. The increase in food imports has been particularly striking for basic foodstuffs, especially cereals, implying that food import has been increasingly important in ensuring food security.
SAPs and lost decades
SAP advocates promised that private investment and exports would soon follow, to compensate for cuts in public investment and pay for imports. So, the short-term pain of adjustment was supposed to bring long-term gain of growth and prosperity. Now, a few in the Washington-based Bretton Woods institutions admit that ‘neoliberalism’ was ‘oversold’, condemning the 1980s and 1990s to become ‘lost decades’.
Thanks to the SAPs, and its recycled version, Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers, Africa became the only continent to see a massive increase in poverty by the end of the 20th century and during the 15 years of the Millennium Development Goals. Nearly half the continent’s population now lives in poverty. According to the World Bank’s Poverty in Rising Africa, the number of Africans in extreme poverty increased by more than 100 million between 1990 and 2012 to about 330 million.
While the continent is experiencing a ‘youth bulge’, with more young people (aged 15–24) in its population, it has failed to generate sufficient decent jobs. According to the African Economic Outlook 2017, on average, more than 70 per cent of Africa’s youth live in poverty, and half of all youth are either unemployed or inactive while 35 per cent are in vulnerable jobs.
The real situation could be even worse. Discouraged youth, unable to find decent jobs, drop out of the labour force, and consequently, are simply not counted.
Poverty and conflicts
DURING the 1980s and 1990s, 30 of the 53 countries in Africa experienced some form of intra-state conflict. In most of these countries, the poverty rates are still extremely high. For example, in Democratic Republic of Congo, a severely conflict-ridden country, the poverty rate was 94 per cent in 2004 and 77 per cent in 2012. Obviously, conflict contributes to poverty but most likely it is poverty that fuels conflict.
No wonder, then, that the World Bank-sponsored studies discount the role of poverty in conflict in Africa; instead, they emphasise greed. But Paul Collier, a leading advocate of the greed narrative of conflicts, who was director of the World Bank’s Development Research group, admits, ‘If young men face only the option of poverty, they might be more inclined to join a rebellion than if they have better opportunities.’
When these young people join a rebel group, they may obtain food and clothing as well as opportunities for recognition and advancement that are normally unavailable to them in a decaying urban slum or a stagnant farming community.
Unfortunately, the SAPs and PRSPs have thrown Africa in a vicious circle of poverty-conflicts and hunger.
IN THE name of catching up or righting the wrong, the World Bank and donor community are advocating large-scale foreign investment. A World Bank report notes rising demand for farmlands, especially following the 2007–2008 food price hikes. Approximately 56 million hectares worth of large-scale farmland deals were announced before the end of 2009, compared with less than 4 million hectares a year before 2008. More than 70 per cent of such deals were in Africa.
In most of these deals, local community concerns are often ignored to benefit big investors and their allies in government. For example, Feronia Inc, a company based in Canada and owned by the development finance institutions of various European governments, controls 1,20,000 hectares of palm oil plantations in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Advocates of large-scale land acquisitions claim that such deals have positive impacts, eg, generating jobs locally and improving access to infrastructure. However, the loss of community access to land and other natural resources, increased conflicts over livelihoods and greater inequality are among some common adverse consequences.
Most such deals involve land already cleared, with varied but nonetheless considerable socioeconomic and environmental implications. Local agrarian populations have often been dispossessed with little consultation or adequate compensation, as in Tanzania, when Swedish-based Agro EcoEnergy acquired 20,000 hectares for a sugarcane plantation and ethanol production.
Land grabbing by foreign companies for commercial farming in Africa is threatening smallholder agricultural productivity, vital for reducing poverty and hunger on the continent. In the process, they have been marginalising local communities, particularly ‘indigenous’ populations, and compromising food security.
Anis Chowdhury is adjunct professor at the University of New South Wales and Western Sydney University (Australia). He was professor of economics at the University of Western Sydney between 2001 and 2012 and held senior United Nations positions in New York and Bangkok
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