Famine and conquest in Africa

Published : Jul 06, 2002 00:00 IST

Even as a programme aimed at accelerating growth and reducing poverty in Africa gains momentum, evidence regarding the contribution made by the policies imposed by the Bretton Woods institutions to the food insecurity problem in large parts of the continent is growing.

RECENT months have witnessed two developments of significance in the African continent. First, the emergence, once again, of food shortages in southern Africa, which threaten a famine in the region. Second, the launch of the New Partnership for Africa's Development (Nepad), which is a programme framed by a joint effort of African governments (led by Nigeria, South Africa, Algeria and Senegal) aimed at accelerating growth and poverty reduction. Ostensibly requiring an annual growth rate of 7 per cent to halve the number of those living in extreme poverty by 2015, the programme, that was discussed last fortnight at the Group of 8 Summit in Kananaskis, Canada, needs extra aid-led funding of $64 billion a year.

These two developments are not unrelated. The vulnerability that the expected famine reflects explains the nature of the Nepad initiative. It also explains the contrast between the eagerness with which African governments have pushed the Nepad process and the tepid response the programme has received from developed-country governments, who must support the programme with the required finance.

The threat of widespread famine is real. According to reports, the World Food Programme's (WFP) regional director has said that southern Africa has not faced such widespread food shortages since the early 1990s, when a severe drought struck the region. Already, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Lesotho have individually declared the situation in their countries to be a national calamity. And Mozambique and Swaziland are reportedly on the brink of disaster. What is more, circumstances are such that there is little hope that the crisis will end during the coming year. Thus, close to five million people are now estimated to be dependent on flows of food aid for survival. As per an estimate made by the WFP in the end of April, about 145,000 tonnes of food worth $69 million is needed to tide over the situation in the coming months, but only $3 million had been pledged till then.

Famines or near-famine conditions in parts of Africa are by now almost routine. And every time governments and international organisations issue an alert and television crews capture pathetic pictures of starving children, animal carcasses and half-abandoned villages, the international community, including governments, aid agencies and non-governmental (NGOs) move into action, seeking to alleviate the damage. But the challenge of vulnerability in Africa remains, as this year's situation once again reveals.

THERE are widely differing views on the factors behind southern Africa's endemic food insecurity problem. Countries in Africa have by no means been recalcitrant when it comes to implementing strategies that the World Bank, the International Moentary Fund (IMF) and the G-8 recommend. Many of them have been through several rounds of stabilisation and structural adjustment programmes and are now among the most open developing countries. This obviously implies that, whatever the original sources of weakness that lead to extreme food insecurity in the continent, neo-liberal policies have by no means helped redress them. In fact, these policies that have denuded government revenues and limited public expenditures by curtailing deficits, have contributed to squeezing much-needed public investments in the agricultural sector. They have also resulted in a shift in favour of cash-crop production that reduces acreage under staple food crops, thereby worsening food security.

The adoption of the neo-liberal policy framework by the countries of Sub-Saharan Africa(SSA) in the 1980s, forced them to engage in a primary exports thrust that resulted in export growth rates of 6 to 14 per cent per annum. But this had major implications for the structure of agricultural production. According to the economist Utsa Patnaik, per capita foodgrain production in the SSA region fell through the decade of the 1980s and stagnated during the 1990s. Using United nations data on cereals plus tubers and plantains, she found that in the six most populous countries of Sub-Saharan Africa, accounting for over three-fifths of the population of the SSA region, cereals output had fallen by 33 per cent in the second half of the 1980s and the all-food output had fallen by one-fifth. For the entire region (comprising 46 countries) the figure for cereals had declined by 16.6 per cent and for all food it had declined by nearly 12 per cent. Since the initial per head cereal output was already low - only 156 kg gross annually per head - the level in 1990 was as low as 137 kg and the situation has not improved since. Given this history it is not surprising that the region remains vulnerable to famine.

This aspect of recent African history tends to be ignored when famine sweeps countries in the region and causal explanations abound. This time around, references are being made to bad weather conditions, to wars and civil strife and even to Zimbabwean leader Robert Mugabe's belated movement to reclaim land from the whites that belonged originally to the black population. They together, it is argued, explain the failure of local governments and the world community to ensure that a region that has been subjected to periodic rounds of neo-liberal "reform" has not been able to overcome even the basic vulnerability that food insecurity implies.

However, the evidence regarding the contribution made by the policies imposed by the Bretton Woods institutions is even starker now. Consider, for example, the case of Malawi. The country's 11 million people consume a little more than 2 million tonnes of the staple maize in a year. In normal years, Malawi's farmers produce enough and more to service this demand. Unfortunately, floods in 2000-01 and drought the next year had reduced maize output to an estimated 1.7 and 1.5 million tonnes respectively. Even this should not have proved a problem, since surpluses from earlier years were held as stock to meet such shortfalls. The problem is that as part of the conditions set under the IMF-World Bank debt relief initiative for highly indebted poor countries like Malawi, the Bakili Muluzi government was forced in August 2000 to sell abroad the whole of its 167,000 tonnes of maize reserves, ostensibly to reduce government spending and enhance foreign exchange reserves.

If the government had not disposed of these stocks the problems created by the inclement weather of the last two years could have been easily dealt with. With stocks having been cleared, the threat of famine and acute dependence on food aid is real. The IMF is blaming the government's optimistic forecasts of the 2001 harvests as being responsible for the error. But, besides the Malawi government, organisations such as the Save the Children Fund squarely blame the IMF for the present distress of the people.

The tragedy is that Africa's vulnerability, created in many ways by the neo-liberal policy package recommended by the World Bank and the IMF, provides the basis for further inroads into the continent by these agencies. While on the surface the effort to alleviate the debilitating consequences of food shortages and famines is coordinated by agencies such as the WFP and by the NGO community, the financial support required to put in place a reasonable effort must come from the G-8 and the multilateral institutions. This provides an opportunity for all of them to exercise their leverage and further push through policies of the kind that contributed to the crisis in the first place. Moreover, it is also an occasion to target any other initiative that the developed countries find unpalatable.

In Zimbabwe, the shortfall of corn created by erratic rainfall conditions and the shift out of maize by white "commercial farmers" threatened by the land seizure movement, is by no means impossible to manage. The effort, however, has to be massive since the cereals deficit this year is estimated at 1.5 million tonnes, and that effort requires support from Western governments. Given the fact that the latter are "unhappy" about President Mugabe's land seizure policies and the alleged "rigging" of the recent election, which saw Zimbabwe's government lose the support of some African friends (especially South Africa's Thabo Mbeki) and its membership of the Commonwealth, the problem has turned serious. In Mugabe's battle against what he sees as the West's land seizure-opposition-determined hypocrisy, which singles him out as a symbol misgovernance even as corrupt governments elsewhere are supported, food aid has been slow to reach a country in which Western interests lie in the emergence of a new government.

FOR a continent that is not just vulnerable but has been virtually battered into aid-dependence, this use of moments of vulnerability as moments of leverage has proved difficult to withstand. This weakness has forced many of the region's governments to internalise the policies recommended by the IMF and the World Bank and treat them as their own, in the hope that they would be able to obtain Western support in times of crisis and derive some marginal benefits from the process of globalisation in the medium term. This tendency to internalise the neo-liberal doctrines purveyed by the Bretton Woods twins and the G-8 governments they represent has obviously been welcomed by the latter. It saves them the embarrassment that comes from accusations like those being made in Malawi, where the obvious link between debt-relief conditionalities and the current crisis (through the sale of food surpluses abroad) has revealed the damaging effect that the pursuit of IMF-style programmes can have.

Not surprisingly, the process of internalisation of neo-liberal policies and Western interests is now being sought to be institutionalised. One form that such institutionalisation took in the past and is taking elsewhere even now is the Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper mechanism, in which domestic governments were expected, based on a participatory process involving local bodies and civil society organisations, to develop a growth and poverty alleviation strategy as a prerequisite for consideration for funding.

This had two advantages. First, it foregrounded the smokescreen of poverty reduction that helps conceal growth policies of the neoliberal kind that were inherently inequalising. Second, instead of such policies being seen as imposed from outside through IMF-style conditionalities, governments were implicitly claiming ownership of such policies.

In Africa this use of the smokescreen of poverty reduction and the transition to policy ownership has taken on continental dimensions, in the form of Nepad. The partnership, between African governments and these governments and the G-8, aims to overcome Africa's underdevelopment and "exclusion", and, of course, Africa's poverty, by embracing the process of globalisation and ensuring better governance.

Embracing globalisation implies, in practice, furthering the marketist regime imposed on these countries in the past, which have been responsible for many of their problems. And better governance implies a process of "peer review" of governments to ensure that they follow Western style "democratic" practices. The first casualty of such "peer review" was, for example, Zimbabwe's membership of the Commonwealth.

This internalisation of the problem-solving process essentially means that international inequality, unequal trade, and developed-country hegemony cannot be seen as the determining constraints on the development process. Thus, while in the past developments such as those which occurred in Malawi would be seen as the consequence of dependence and domination, which need to be opposed, in future they could be attributed to internal policy or governance failures. The IMF, for example, would not have to argue as it did in Malawi that the original sin was an erroneous harvest forecast by government agencies. The government itself would in all probability admit to the same, or be "peer reviewed" into accepting the same. This ability of developed country governments to push or buy out Africa's elite to "own" fully the processes that impoverish their people is imperialism's greatest post-War success yet in the African continent.

However, given the vulnerability of most African nations, some developed countries, especially the U.S., for which Africa is strategically less important, are not even willing to pay much of a price for their victory. Despite the estimate made by the Africans "themselves" that Nepad needs additional annual support of $64 billion a year, the Africa Action Plan agreed upon at the recent Kananaskis summit only incorporated a commitment to direct half the increase in G-8 aid budgets (by $12 billion by 2006) announced at Monterrey to Africa - a sum rightly dismissed as "peanuts" by many NGOs, including Oxfam and Cafod. The action plan declares: "Assuming strong African policy commitments, and given recent assistance trends, we believe that in aggregate half or more of our new development assistance could be directed to African nations that govern justly, invest in their own people and promote economic freedom."

However, under pressure from the U.S., it left each country's commitment flexible. "Each of us will decide, in accordance with our respective priorities and procedures, how we will allocate the additional money we have pledged," the plan said. National Security Adviser Condo-leezza Rice reassuringly stated that even more than half of U.S. international aid could go to Africa if the African nations implemented their promise to pursue good governance. The perception is that it is when the victims is vulnerable that they can be easily battered into total submission.

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