For decades, the United Nations has been urging donors to contribute food aid to African countries experiencing famine or drought.
The appeals are often accompanied by images of emaciated African women and children at feeding centres in places like Somalia and the Sahel.
So it is surprising — if not highly unusual — for a top UN official to advocate against food aid. Tegegnework Gettu, the director of UNDP’s Regional Bureau for Africa, says that the culture of begging for food must end in Africa because it is “an affront to both dignity and potential”.
In the recently-launched Africa Human Development Report 2012, Gettu dares to ask the obvious, but critical, questions: “If some African countries can acquire and deploy jet fighters, tanks, artillery and other advanced means of destruction, why should they not be able to master agricultural know-how?
“Why should Africans be unable to afford the technology, tractors, irrigation, seed varieties and training needed to become food secure?”
Why, indeed? The Africa Human Development Report says that food insecurity in Africa is the result of poor governance whereby “regimes bent on amassing wealth absorbed the region’s resources into patrimonial power structures”.
Across sub-Saharan Africa, he adds, rural infrastructure has deteriorated and food systems have stagnated.
Africa’s food production potential is immense. The continent has ample agricultural land, plenty of (unharnessed and un-irrigated) water, and a generally favourable climate.
Yet one in four Africans is undernourished, and food insecurity is pervasive. The problem is that Africa’s agriculture is not productive because it does not make adequate use of technology and innovation. This means food prices remain high and farming remains at subsistence level.
Gettu makes a point that has generally eluded the international community and worsened the agricultural potential of African nations.
Developed countries, he says, maintain agricultural subsidies that benefit their rich producers. These countries, however, are the first to discourage subsidies in African countries (and are quick to send their subsidised food surpluses to Africa as aid)!
Furthermore, externally-inspired adjustment programmes have weakened state capacity and encouraged African governments to repay ballooning debts by diverting resources from food production to cash crop exports.
This has led to a vicious cycle: “The indifference of some development partners to sub-Saharan Africa’s agriculture sector mirrored government neglect, often leaving food growers at the mercy of aid tied to counterproductive conditions.”
Gettu fails to mention the adverse impact of his own organisation on agricultural production in Africa. The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN, for instance, has failed to improve food security in most of the African countries where it has agricultural programmes.
Perhaps the UN should look to Malawi for a solution. Malawi is one country that made a conscious decision to ignore the advice of development partners.
The results have been astounding. In less than a decade, the country rose from a recipient of food aid to a net food exporter.
At the turn of the millennium, farms in Malawi were producing very low yields due to depletion of nitrogen in the soils.
In 2004, the then President Bingu wa Mutharika decided that the government would subsidise smallholder farmers to help them buy small amounts of fertiliser and seeds.
Donor governments were horrified. Subsidies, they said, were bad for the economy (no one asked them why they subsidised their own farmers back home.)
When Mutharika refused to budge on his decision, the donors refused to fund the programme. Malawi went ahead with it anyway, using its own meagre funds.
Luckily for Malawians, the subsidy programme was not fraught with corruption (as it has been in Kenya when it was tried).
The President was personally and politically committed to making the programme a success and even devoted government revenues to it. Let us hope Malawi’s success story is replicated across the continent.
By Rasna Warah
*This article was first published in the Daily Nation on 4 June 2012