Africa: UN Hits Out at Rulers Over Lack of Food

15 May 2012

Despite rapid economic growth in some African countries in recent years, no government across the continent can rightfully claim that all its citizens have access to enough affordable, nutritious food to meet their dietary needs.

This sober message, published in the United Nations Development Programme's (UNDP) Africa Human Development Report 2012 released today, includes a warning that unless the continent eliminates the hunger that affects almost one in four Africans, it cannot sustain its present economic resurgence.

Entitled, "Towards a Food Secure Future", the UNDP'S first-ever Africa report says that with a population projected to exceed two billion people sometime after 2050, sub-Saharan Africa will need "to produce substantially more food, while mitigating the stresses which agricultural production places on the environment".

The preface to the report pulls no punches. "Had African governments over the past 30 years met their people's aspirations, this report would not be necessary," writes the director of the UNDP's Africa Bureau, Tegegnework Gettu. "One quarter of the people in sub-Saharan Africa would not be undernourished, and one third of African children would not be stunted."

If the "patrimonial power structures" and "self-serving elites" within many African governments had not profited from graft or pocketed the profits from the region's resources over the years, sub-Saharan Africa "would be food secure and the gap between its human development and that of more successful regions would be closing rapidly," adds Gettu.

The report draws attention to the paradox that while many Africans starve, there is enough food to feed the continent.

"Crop failure and a lack of food are not the only causes of famine and hunger," says former New Zealand prime minister and administrator of the UNDP, Helen Clark. "More often, the challenge is uneven access to food, which occurs when people lack the means to acquire it. This uneven access is thus a symptom of the low incomes and high levels of vulnerability that still affect many Africans."

Development in the broadest sense is needed to ensure a "food-secure future for all Africans", says Clark.

According to the Africa report, two-thirds of working Africans make a living off the land. The report says policies that promote agricultural productivity stimulate economic growth. This helps pull people out of poverty through job and income creation, increasing the capacity to save and invest in the future. These changes, in turn, enable a more sustainable use of land and water resources.

The report singles out two examples where such policies have worked.

Encouragement to cocoa farmers to boost output enabled Ghana to meet Millennium Development Goal One - becoming the first sub-Saharan African country to halve hunger by 2015. In Malawi, a massive seed and fertilizer subsidy programme has helped transform a food deficit into a 1.3 million-tonne surplus within two years.

But simply boosting agricultural output is not enough to improve a population's health and wellbeing. Access to land, support during droughts, attention to the quality of food that is grown are all factors that require attention. Equally important is national and regional infrastructure to ensure distribution of food from the field to markets.

The Africa Human Development Report says that getting food from field to table in sub-Saharan Africa is "fraught with risk". It recommends that countries should take measures to lower the vulnerability of individuals and communities to natural disasters and civil conflict, seasonal or volatile changes in food prices, and climate change.

In looking for solutions to reduce the rate of malnutrition in children, the report says that more important than household income is the level of education achieved by mothers.

In Senegal, coordinated and targeted actions across several ministries, supported by an increased national nutrition budget, helped to lower incidences of malnutrition in children from 34 to 20 percent between 1990 and 2005. In Tanzania, through similar efforts, children whose mothers received food supplements in the first three months of their pregnancies completed longer schooling periods.

Access to land - and security of tenure - are crucial factors for those who would farm land in Africa, particularly women. According to the report, achieving food security will remain out of reach so long as those who play a major role in food production - the rural poor and women, in particular - do not have more control over their own lives.

The report cites evidence that when women get access to the same inputs as men, yields can rise by more than 20 percent.

Concluding his preface to the report, Gettu writes that "history is not destiny" and "Africans are not fated to starve". Instead, he argues that countries in Africa have "the knowledge, the technology, and the means to end hunger and food insecurity" but a vital ingredient that is often missing is the political will and dedication to do so.

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