23 May 2008

Africa: Food Crisis Threatens Democracy

guest column

More than half the nations of the world in which riots have broken out over food prices are in Africa, says Julius E. Coles, president of Africare, a U.S.-based organization which has been implementing food security programs across Africa for nearly 40 years. Based on that experience, he outlines recommendations for a comprehensive approach to meeting current challenges.

The global food crisis has now reached every corner of the world, pushing millions of people living in poverty to the edge of disaster. Africa is the world's poorest region: more than 210 million people live on less than U.S. $1 a day; more than 400 million live on less than U.S. $2 a day, and by 2015 that number is projected to reach 600 million.

It is no surprise, therefore, that the effects of the current food crisis have been most acute in Africa. With food prices up by 57 percent in March compared to a year ago, more than half the countries in which rioting has broken are in Africa – they include Somalia, Cameroon, Senegal, Mozambique, Cote d'Ivoire, Morocco, Mauritania, Egypt, Guinea and Burkina Faso.

The widespread occurrence of the rioting underlines the extreme urgency of the food crisis and the potential it has to destabilize African democracies.

External economic factors are not the only causes of the crisis. In order to identify and provide long-term solutions, the underlying causes of hunger and poverty must be better understood.

Some of these factors include: a rising demand for food products to satisfy the needs of rapidly growing populations; an internal shift from food farming to cash cropping; poor harvests linked to uneven rainfall; the rising costs of agricultural inputs such as fertilizer, transport, and labor; and limited infrastructure in rural regions for increased food storage, transport and marketing.

In addition, climate change is having a significant impact on fragile soils and traditional farming systems. Small rural farmers and communities simply can no longer produce sufficient quantities of the food needed to sustain their populations.

To help those most severely impacted, the international donor community must provide sustained quantities of emergency food aid. But the only real long-term solution to the problem of chronic food deficits and hunger is the development of programs to promote food security, adequate nutrition, improved incomes for farmers and urban dwellers, and overall economic development.

Sound government policies coupled with local farmer knowledge and participation are important pre-conditions to the success of a food security program for the African continent. Africare, in addition to many other organizations, is responding to the food crisis with proven strategies that increase food availability over the long-term, making small-scale producers more resilient to the effects of food crises. This involves earning trust at national and local levels, building partnerships, and developing programs that increase the production and productivity of subsistence farmers.

Africare believes a comprehensive approach to Africa's food security should include the following components:

  • Providing agricultural inputs such as drought-resistant seeds, tools, affordable fertilizer and appropriate methods, for example crop rotation, plant spacing, composting, weeding and agro-forestry intercropping.
  • Combining farming with animal raising activities including fishponds, chickens, rabbits, pigs and goats.
  • Investing in wells, pumps, and irrigation systems.
  • Improving the monitoring and evaluation of agricultural activities with clear indicators.
  • Strengthening farmer associations with organizational skills and self-assessment tools.
  • Strengthening the capacity of government agricultural extension agents.
  • Strengthening African civil society to be able to influence national social and economic policies.  
  • Improving marketing and food supply systems from rural areas to cities.
  • Training farmers and villagers so that they themselves can produce the food needed for their own good nutrition and sustenance, as well as to increase their incomes.

The various programs and initiatives proposed will require the sustained financial and technical assistance of governments, international and financial institutions, and non-governmental organizations working with African farmers. It is only through such a combined and focused approach that the people of Africa will be able to break the cycle of hunger, poor nutrition and disease.

These investments to improve African agriculture are essential for eliminating poverty and helping Africa achieve greater prosperity and stability in the long run. There is no doubt that a stronger and self-sufficient African continent is in the United States' national interest, as well as that of the world community.

Julius E. Coles is president of Africare, a U.S.-based non-governmental organization that was founded in response to a drought and hunger crisis in the Sahel in 1970.


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