Food crisis in Africa

The United Nations estimates that in sub-Saharan Africa 38 million people are in danger of starvation within months. To give this some perspective, this figure is roughly equivalent to the population of Poland or Spain, and less than ten million less the entire population of the Republic of South Africa. This immense human tragedy goes largely unnoticed by a monopoly media obsessed with the threat of terrorism. And many of those that are aware of this African holocaust perceive it as an unfortunate, but an unforeseeable act of nature, like a hurricane or flood.

But we cannot criminally hide our heads in the sand. The fact is this unimaginable suffering could have been prevented and can still be relieved.

The United States Agency for International Development estimates that this threat would be reduced if the world would supply the needy in sub-Saharan Africa with 4.5 to 5.5 million tons of food relief. This is well less than a tenth of a per cent of world production and an even more minute portion of potential world food production.

Using U.S. wheat, corn or soybean market prices, these needs could be met for less than $1 billion. The U.S. spends more than this on the military every two days and would easily expend an equal amount in only a few days of senseless war against Iraq.

While warding off this impending disaster is urgent, it is also important to search for the causes of this human tragedy. Most of the countries of sub-Saharan Africa were self-sufficient in food 30 and 40 years ago at a time when they were newly liberated from colonial domination.

Some have blamed population growth for the strain on food availability. But most of the population growth is the natural human response to soaring death rates brought on by famine and disease. This Malthusian argument is a non-starter.

The actual cause of sub-Saharan Africa’s crisis is the policies and prescriptions of imperialism. On the one hand, international agencies insist that the poor nations of Africa engage in economic activity that will meet the needs of the world market and not domestic priorities. At the same time they discourage domestic agricultural activity. As reported by The Wall Street Journal (Dec. 3, 2002), agricultural assistance from wealthy countries and international agencies has fallen by half in the nineties, making it harder to sustain agricultural development. By way of contrast, the industrialized countries subsidize their own agriculture to the tune of $311 billion dollars a year. The resulting rewarded overproduction has depressed world grain prices by 50 percent over the last twenty years. Without these subsidies, it is estimated that incomes in poorer countries would increase by $60 billion per year. Thus, the producer in sub-Saharan Africa has neither the assistance nor the potential profit of increased production.

As The Wall Street Journal notes, the scientific means for radically increasing food production are readily available. They cite the use of high yield grains developed by Dr. Norman Borlaug which contributed to making both Mexico and India net exporters of wheat in the past. But the former Nobel Prize winners’ work in Africa is only supported by a small charitable organization. As the authors of the WSJ article duly note, there has been “... a profound shift in the politics of international development,” a shift that leaves the lives of 38 million people in the balance.

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org