Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Finding a way out of Africa's food crisis

Africa is still trying to find it's way out of the food crisis. Even though increases in food prices has eased in developed nations, the rest of the world is still trying to find solutions.

A story today in the Harvard Political Review points out that food shortages haven't improved yet in Africa. Because the continent depends so much on food aid the way out is trickier.

Shreya Maheshwari of the Harvard Political Review asks an expert of international affairs on what might help the continent.

Harvard Political Review November 4th

Robert Paarlberg, an associate at Harvard's Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, told the HPR that even though higher food prices last year made news due to their impact on developed countries, the real fight against hunger is still very much centered on Africa. “It’s not the price that causes hunger,” Paarlberg noted. “The most vulnerable countries do not get their food from the world food markets. Hence, price changes in the global markets do not affect them strongly. Instead, they mostly rely on foreign aid for their food supply.”

Dependence on Aid
Due to systemic problems in food sufficiency, these regions have become heavily dependent on foreign aid for supplying their populations with food. In many African countries such as Botswana, Cape Verde, Mauritius, and Mauritania, food aid makes up more than half the food available for consumption. Since African countries rely so heavily on international aid, a decline in donor pledges will impact the least developed countries the hardest. With the recent downturn in financial markets hitting the world economy, development agencies are worried that donor countries such as the U.S., which pledges approximately $2 billion every year, may adopt protectionism and reassess their commitments to international development aid.

So far, aid has been used primarily as a stopgap measure: There has been little progress in implementing long-term solutions to the chronic problem of food shortage. According to Brain Wright, a professor in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at U.C.-Berkeley, “Africa needs sustained investment in research and basic infrastructure, without which even minor changes in aid or natural conditions will have a substantial impact on the fragile production system in these countries.” However, Paarlberg worries that in times of financial stress, long-term investment might take a back seat for donors more concerned with feeding the poor now.

The way forward
Countries in the sub-Saharan region must look for alternatives to international aid in these times of economic distress and implement grassroots changes in agricultural systems if they are to survive the food crisis. Paarlberg believes that philanthropic organizations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation provide good models of targeting the correct variables. The Gates Foundation is focusing on the needs of poor small-holder farmers in Africa through the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, chaired by Kofi Annan. To meet short-term demands, the World Bank launched a $1.2 billion rapid financing facility to address critical needs. A balanced approach, not merely dependent on food aid but pushing for investment in agriculture, is required for achieving progress in the fight against hunger.

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