Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Africa at Crossroads as Food Crisis Menaces Gains

Opinion & Analysis
Posted to the web on: 17 June 2008

Africa at crossroads as food crisis menaces gains

by Gra├ža Machel

THE factors behind the global food crisis may be complex, but its effect is simple in its brutality. The worst affected countries are those that need to import agricultural produce, and the hardest hit people are those who spend the largest proportion of their incomes on food. It is therefore the poorest people in the poorest countries who are feeling the brunt of this catastrophe.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation notes that 21 of the 37 counties worst affected by high food prices are in Africa.

Yesterday, the Africa Progress Panel produced its inaugural report on the state of Africa, assessing the state of the continent’s development and identifying the challenges that threaten progress. Chaired by Kofi Annan and including statesmen, development experts and high-profile campaigners, the panel was established to focus world leaders on their commitments to Africa.

The report calls for immediate steps to tackle the food crisis. The food supply must be increased by increasing financial assistance to the governments of affected countries and aid agencies. All countries must make every effort to increase the quantity of food on international markets, so that the World Food Programme, relief organisations and individual governments are able to buy food.

If the scale of the emergency is not acknowledged, or the response is delayed, we will see an increase in hunger and malnutrition. The cost of food will not only be gauged in the wheat or rice price, but also in the rising number of infant and child deaths across Africa.

What gives this call to action added resonance is the fact that Africa has in the past few years been making real, tangible progress. Gross domestic product per capita across Africa has risen steadily since 1994. On the most recent International Monetary Fund estimates, the rate of growth reached 6,6% last year, exceeding the Middle East and Latin America. The number of people living in poverty has levelled off in the past few years, and Africa’s poverty rate has declined almost six percentage points since 2000. There have also been significant improvements in health and education, with infant and child mortality declining in many parts of Africa.

These hard fought gains are now at risk. The panel’s report shows the food crisis threatens to destroy years, if not decades, of economic progress in Africa, as 100-million people could be pushed back into absolute poverty. For me, this is where the real tragedy lies. The very people who have fought against the odds, harnessed their talents to better their lives, and dared hope their children would continue the journey, could see their efforts reduced to nothing.

The panel is thus calling for more than immediate outside aid to alleviate problems of high food prices. As Africans, we must take responsibility for the fundamental, structural problems with agricultural productivity on our continent. With the lowest use of fertilisers in the world, average grain yield in Africa is less than one ton a hectare, equivalent to just 25% of the global average. Our population has increased, yet African agricultural yields have stagnated since the early 1960s.

We must therefore raise agricultural productivity and increase food output. This includes reforming outdated policies and investing in key inputs such as fertiliser, improved seeds, effective management of water and new crop varieties, and linking farmers to markets via investments in basic infrastructure. In short, Africa needs a green revolution.

If the challenge seems daunting, there is some comfort in knowing the expertise and the experience exist. With appropriate technology and support, for example, Malawi has gone from experiencing serious food shortages to becoming both self-reliant and a net exporter of food. The key is to build on this success and replicate it.

It is no coincidence the Africa Progress Panel has published its report just ahead of the European Council summit in Brussels and a few weeks ahead of the Group of Eight (G-8) summit in Hokkaido, Japan. Our report shows G-8 commitments to double assistance to Africa by 2010 — agreed at Gleneagles in 2005 — are badly off track. With a shortfall of $40bn in aid, G-8 states must urgently address the deficits against their targets, set clear delivery timetables and increase transparency to improve aid quality. The crisis has put a clear premium on the G-8 delivering its original pledges.

I am conscious that on numerous occasions in the past few decades, it has been said that Africa is at a crossroads. If we agree the continent has demonstrated real progress in the past decade, and we acknowledge that the food crisis threatens to reverse much of this, then we are — once again — at a defining moment. European and G-8 leaders should be in no doubt when they gather in Brussels and Hokkaido that they face a very real test of leadership. Millions of people across the world are demanding that they deliver.

Machel is a member of the Africa Progress Panel. The full report can be read on http://www.africaprogresspanel.org

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