Since the beginning of the year, the world has been scourged with a food crisis. An increase in the price of food staples to sometimes astronomical levels has raised the risk of famine, exposed more people to malnutrition and led to protests around the globe. World leaders, seeking to avoid regime-toppling unrest, are trying to figure out how best to feed the world’s inhabitants.
U.S. President George W. Bush, in particular, has announced about $200 million in emergency food aid. This is in addition to his call upon the U.S. Congress to make another $770 million available for food aid. In total, the emergency food aid from the U.S. alone may total almost $1 billion.
Historically, the U.S. has been the largest provider of food aid. In the 2007 fiscal year, for example, it provided 2.5 million metric tons of commodities to over 70 countries, with a monetary value of $2.1 billion. Within the same period, it provided 1.5 metric tons of emergency food aid to 30 countries valued at $1.2 billion.
Aside from those who are victims of natural disasters like the recent cyclone in Burma, however, food aid will do nothing to assuage the rising cost of food and food shortages in the long run. One risk is that the little that is left of domestic food markets is ruined by the inflow of cheap or free food aid. In the long run, regular deliveries of food aid to food-insecure populations have meant that autocratic governments have been to stay in power and avoid much-needed reforms.
To be sure, the concern shown by President Bush to feed the hungry of the world is welcome. Such compassion, however, seems to have been largely misdirected. While the U.S. food aid might feed few millions of Africans, it does not do so for long. Africa should not need food aid to feed its population. Africa can feed its own people—the problem is that it has never been allowed to try to succeed. The continent has been held back in food production by harsh local policies and an unfair trade regime inflicted on it by the developed world.
Eighty-five percent of Africans live in rural communities. Their main occupation is farming. They rely on it to feed themselves and their families. What profit can be had used to buy other farm implements and chemicals needed to enhance yields and reduce manual labor. The European Union Common Agriculture Policy and the U.S. farm policy of providing subsidies to farmers have been displacing African agriculture products, and hence limiting income that could have been used to re-invest to enhance increased production. This has retarded growth in the continent while at the same time undermining food production.
According to the World Bank, if the U.S. and E.U. abrogate or reduce the subsidies to their own farmers, the impact will be felt in lifting millions of Africans out of poverty. Despite calls for phasing out these trade-distorting policies, the U.S and the E.U have been shifting the goalpost—contrary to the agreement reached during the Doha Round. Unfortunately, trade talks to get this agreement ratified have ended in fiasco.
According to a study conducted in 2001 by the Economic Research Service of U.S. Department of Agriculture, tariffs have the largest price distortion, with 52 percent, followed by domestic support, with 31 percent and, lastly, export subsidies, with 13 percent.
Trading with the developed world has not been on equal footing, with African countries facing high tariffs for their exports. Furthermore, while the developed world has made trade policies skewed against African countries, the countries of Africa have not been able to trade among themselves. An increase in trade among African countries by less than five percent, for example, would yield more than $70 billion in annual income. This ultimately would be more than the continent receives yearly as foreign aid.
According to International Monetary Fund (IMF) trade statistics in 2005, trade within Africa is a mere 9 percent compared to 43 percent among countries within Asia. Africa's share in world trade has been reduced from six percent to less than two percent in the last two decades. When South Africa is removed from the calculation, this figure shrunk to 0.6 per cent.
In times of crises such as this, it is common for the developed world to look at Africa as a continent that can only survive on handouts. The current food crisis, however, has brought to the fore the need for Africa to urgently map out a strategy to meet the growing needs of its inhabitants. Over the years, the handouts have not helped Africa in the long term; instead, they have crippled its production base.
Solving the food challenge in Africa goes beyond President Bush and simple food aid. What Africa actually need is a further commitment from the U.S. and its allies in the West to inject life into comatose trade negotiations. The U.S. can end the waiting game in trade talks by unilaterally commencing the gradual reformation of its farm policy.
The advantage is obvious. Such action will put pressure on the E.U. to reduce its subsidies as well. Secondly, it will spur an increase in economic growth. Thirdly, the direct beneficiary will be African farmers whose products are displaced in the world market. Low yields in Africa have a direct connection with lack of improved technology. Efforts by African farmers to embrace improved hybrids and biotechnology have been resisted by groups who often cite unproven scientific evidence over possible effects of the technology. Poor countries should be allowed to use available technology to solve their problems. When this is obtained, it will bring about high yields and abundant food production. It will make Africa a continent that can feed its population, rather than being with a cap in the hand over food.
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This story was published on June 3, 2008.