Almost every year millions of Africans are at risk of starvation and malnutrition. What is really going on over there? It is, probably, not what you think. All East African countries export food, so it is not a production problem. It is a food access problem. What has happened is that many of us in the United States have adopted/accepted the nonsensic…al idea that the free market is beneficial in all instances. Nothing is free. In fact, what we find is that the free market annually fails millions of hungry people in Africa and around the world.
A pledge: This year things will be different (will they?)
An April 4 Associated Press (AP) article that appeared in the Washington Post (WP) ($3.9 billion pledged to prevent repeat of last year’s East Africa famine) reported that a group of international donors has banned together on a pledge to prevent a repeat of last year’s famine in the Horn of Africa. According to estimates, the 2011 famine claimed more than 100,000 lives in Somalia, while another 12 million suffered from severe food deprivation in Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda, and Djibouti.
What is really happening?
If we look beyond what is in the article to read between the lines and apply what we know about how these deals really go down, we get a better idea of what is driving the West’s newly found righteousness.
US Aid, the World Bank, the European Union, and a few other agencies, plan to spend a combined $3.9 billion in the region to avert future famines. Rather than investing in local economies, these are investments in American and European corporations. For example, efforts to assist in improvements in crop resiliency will likely be competitive between Monsanto, ADM, and Cargill. The giants, including Siemens, Schlumberger, and General Electric, are likely to compete for contracts to improve access to potable and “affordable” water. Meanwhile, Nestle, which recently purchased the nutritional supplement division of its largest rival, Pfizer – now has a virtual monopoly on the dietary nutritional supplement and infant formula market. We can assume that Nestle will likely take the lion’s share of the portion of investment to prevent malnutrition.
So, we see that these are not necessarily goodwill gestures on the part of the donors, as much as they are investments into some of the largest corporations in the world. There is also a geopolitical motive. This is a pre-emptive move to beat China or India from spreading its influence in the region (an upcoming essay will explore The New Scramble for Africa).
While this may still seem like an admirable gesture to some readers – consider the long-term effect. The adoption of hybrid, drought-resistant crop seeds, requires the use of expensive chemical inputs, including fertilizers, pesticides, and irrigation systems. The seeds produced from the plants are sterile, so the farmer must purchase seeds each season. The chemical inputs eliminate the soil’s ability to regenerate, thus requiring additional inputs in subsequent seasons. The extensive use of pesticides offsets the local ecology by eliminating and poisoning an important link in the food chain. This chemical-farming system traps the farmer into a cycle of debt.
I have gone this far into the argument without addressing the problem. What causes the famines? The AP article, mentioned above, reveals two culprits that complicate matters and contribute to the severity of famine conditions in Africa, including, 1) cyclical drought, 2) and corrupt African governments and bureaucracies. Let us take them individually before we get to what the article does not say above the production of famines.
Cyclical droughts in the Sahel (the transition zone between the Sahara Desert and Africa’s savannas) are a permanent feature of that climate zone. They are not new. The populations that live in this region adopted strategies over centuries to ensure that food was available during drought years, including seasonal migrations, planting water retaining forests and shrubbery, and protecting the most fertile zones. Populations have increased in recent years, but they have not outgrown the food supply under traditional land use patterns. Frequent famines are a relatively recent phenomenon (a product of the past 3 decades). Prior to the 1980s, famines outside of conflict zones in Africa were rare and much less severe.
Corruption: Blame the Victim
In the WP article – the writer makes no connection between corruption and the causes of famine or food insecurity. The author includes corruption as a topic to divert attention from the actual problem. This tactic is consistent and coincides with a larger discourse to present African governments, as being inept, corrupt, or both. By representing African governments in this way, it becomes easier for western powers to justify interventions in African affairs as they deem it necessary. The campaign to highlight corruption in developing countries was the brainchild of former World Bank executives who started the organization Transparency International (TI), as another tool to discredit governments in developing countries. As developing countries struggle to fit into a world economy that has all of the rules stacked against their success, administrators sometime seek to circumvent the rules and provide access to companies that are willing to pay for access to resources. Another example of corruption described in these reports is a business traveler who has to pay a customs officer to get his luggage through the customs office without hassle. According to TI, this type of corruption interferes with business and thwarts the success of these economies.
There is corruption. I am not making a case that corruption is not a problem. I am arguing that TI, the western media, and scholars disproportionately target and label African countries as corrupt. By all objective measures, the United States should be the focus of any campaign to expose corruption. However, TI has no mechanism for measuring or describing the corporate sponsored elected officials in the United States as a form of corruption. In another example, TI did not describe it as corruption when Halliburton received more than $17.2 billion dollars – many of them in no-bid contracts to rebuild Iraq after Bush ordered its destruction. V-President, Dick Cheney was the CEO of Halliburton prior to assuming the role of VP and the Bush family are major stockholders in Halliburton, which merged with Granddaddy Prescott Bush’s company (the former director of) Dresser Industries in 1998.
Let us now move beyond the corruption talk and get to the real issues around the frequent famines in Africa.
So, how did we get here? Or, why are famines so frequent, now?
Beginning in the 1980s, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, under the guise of Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs), forced many African governments to open their economies, abandon public health, education, and welfare programs, and to allow outsiders unfettered access to Africa’s vast natural resources. Over the next few decades, Europeans, Chinese, Arabs and others bought large tracts of the most productive agricultural lands from Algeria to Zimbabwe.
African women and men worked these productive lands for generations, before the governments sold these lands to outsiders. Most small-scale African farmers grew enough to feed their families, set aside enough to get them through rough times, and to sell within their communities. They never raised enough or considered saving to purchase a deed for the property that their parents left to them. The outsiders, who purchased the land from the government, forced the inhabitants from the property and setup giant farms, orchards, and plantations to grow export crops.
Now, instead of growing yams, cassava, peas, beans, vegetables and fruits for domestic consumption, the Africans now work for foreigners to grow flowers, tobacco, coffee, tea, grains, fruits, vegetables, and spices. These products do not stay on the continent. The landowners export them to satisfy global demands. They export food even during times of famine and food crisis. Consider that in 2009, a famine year, Ethiopia exported 545 million pounds of vegetables, 386 million pounds of beans, 15 million pounds of meats, and 22 million pounds of potatoes.
The idea is that when we hear about famines we often think of people who live in inhospitable climates and survive at the whim of favorable weather cycles. In this scenario – the climate is the culprit. However, when we look deeper, we find that humans are at the center of the problem. If we know that it is a people problem, then we know that there is a people solution. Africa produces more than enough food to feed itself. That is not the problem. Many Africans do not have access to the food that Africa produces. This problem is a common one. Africans are not in control of Africa’s resources. This is a holdover from the colonial period. Under the existing rules, African countries have a difficult time negotiating their place in the world economy and among the nations of the world.
Let us begin to have conversations that put these issues into perspective. Let us begin to talk about and work toward the necessary changes that promote dignity, fairness, hope, peace, and prosperity.