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Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Egonomics of poverty: "Silly" reasons for hunger and poverty in Africa


courtesy of photobucket.com
Munyaradzi Mufambisi says “If we already know the basic parameters of what needs to be done, why have we allowed hundreds of millions to go hungry in a world that produces more food for every woman, man and child? Bluntly stated, the problem is not so much lack of food as a lack of political will. There is indeed enough food in the world to sustain every person. The problem of hunger is not one of supply but of an economic system based on inequality and a gross concentration of wealth in the hands of the few.” 
How I like quoting my friends like world renounced commentators. I pulled this off Munyaradzi’s Facebook profile. In case you are wondering, He is a friend and an economics/finance guy…hence the wealth and economics slant of that argument. More importantly, he is an “ordinary” guy with the concerns of any man (mine at least). This old Facebook post came to mind recently and got me thinking, could there be other reasons for a world going hungry despite producing enough or having the potential to produce enough food for all? I confess, my mind trod as far away as possible from the economics and finance argument of it all. Since I know only enough of that to hold up a conversation with a Taxi rank marshal from Gumbonzvanda (don’t ask). This is what came to mind:
There is a saying by my people, “kufa nenyota makumbo ari mumvura”. Loosely translated, “Dying of thirst while we stand in water.” I thought, there must be at least some things that we are doing to fuel this vicious cycle of hunger and starvation amid plenty (we here referring to Africans/Zimbabweans). Without worrying much about the Global economics, politics, wealth sharing and food distribution argument. What is our part in this?
Could it be a case of the man thinks the water in which he stands is too dirty to drink and so he may die from diarrhoea (which is quite ironic because if he doesn’t drink the water, he is sure to die anyway). Could it be that he doesn’t have a cup and so is too proud to cup his own hands to drink the water. Has the man been given too much of a taste of "Le good life” to make him too proud to go back to the basics in order to save his own life?
Yellow maize popped into my head. Zimbabweans call it “Kenya.” I think because it came from Kenya…I can’t be sure. It is a type of maize that any self respecting Zimbabwean would never grind to make our beloved Sadza (a thick porridge…there is more to it really but for progress’ sake, let us just call it that) come what may. It is maize like any other maize, but the colour is associated with extreme poverty, especially severe famine. The last time I saw a meal made from yellow maize was in 1993. This was around the time Zimbabwe experienced the worst drought of my generation. It is as if Zimbabweans signed a contract with the wind that stated “as of this year, we will never make Sadza from yellow maize again, its too demeaning” and as long as the wind blows, that contract stands! A Zimbabwean will only have his Sadza white or no Sadza at all. We wouldn’t be caught dead eating a meal made with yellow maize. We would rather starve. Such attitudes and beliefs though seemingly petty and trivial to an outsider can easily make or break a well meaning programme to relieve people from the clutches of hunger. Even if all the maize in the world were redistributed, we wouldn’t touch it as long as it was any other colour but white. Our egos won’t allow it.
Another idea popped into my head. How about improved farming technologies? They have worked wonders all over the world (case in point being Asia), why not Africa? Of course there is a whole political, socio-economic argument there, but im shying away from those. I am sticking with the seemingly silly arguments today! It got me thinking, improved technologies have failed in Africa (of course not entirely) not from a lack of trying. In a ridiculously large number of cases, farmers just simply won’t adopt them. Again, there are a lot of political and economic reasons to that too. However if you have as a researcher or development person ever encountered indigenous farmers that simply tell you “this is how we have done things for as long as we can remember and we are not going to change” then you probably know what I am talking about. All scientific reason and evidence will not move such people even if efforts are for their own good. Tradition and history can easily throw spanners in well meaning works to alleviate hunger and poverty. There is a lot that can be learnt from indigenous people (a whole lot) but if locals also continue to resist foreign interventions, simply because our egos won’t let us part with tradition, then progress towards “food for all” will be severely retarded.
How I would love to hear other “seemingly silly” arguments about why there is so much hunger and poverty in the world. Where else on the continent or the world does the “yellow maize” or “we have been doing this for years” mindset persist?

2 comments:

  1. Frank Chirowa , MPH (Global Health), Msc (Economics)June 14, 2012 at 12:44 PM

    Thank you for introducing a very important issue, food security. Though I agree with you that solutions should come from us as Africans, foreign intervention has to be taken with a pinch of salt. I am happy to contribute to this for which I would like to believe is an intellectual forum and respect each contribution that will be placed on this blog. At an international congress of nutrition held in South Africa in 2005, the Director General of FAO’s speech mentioned that, “despite the world producing food enough to feed everyone; 1 in 7 people don’t get food” (http://www.fao.org/ag/agn/nutrition/docs/Negociating_the_Future_of_Nutrition-Speech.pdf). In economics we call such issue as economics of distribution. But the question is who decides the allocation of the world food? The issue of inequalities does not end there. There are countries that are so advanced, and can predict what will happen 1500 years from now using their scientific advancements. I was surprised that America is one of the largest producers of maize in the world, China loans large amounts of money to the US in return of a supply of maize. The reason is that China’s agriculture is no longer viable because the aquifers they relied on are drying up and fear to be food insecure. Saudi Arabia is in the same boat, drying aquifers and has resorted to buying land in other countries. A larger part of Sudan’s arable land is owned by Saudi and your wonder why there is hunger and mulnutrion in Sudan, they don’t have the land to plough. My dear mother country Zimbabwe, little did I know that the Chinese own a huge proportion of land; they farm and send back food to their people, (Source food land grabs data) (http://www.grain.org/article/entries/4479-grain-releases-data-set-with-over-400-global-land-grabs). Check this out you will be surprised see which countries own land in the poverty and hunger stricken countries; it’s shocking. As if all efforts of getting land from the poor were not enough damage, there came the Intellectual Property Rights in Agriculture (IPRs). This is another evil in the guise of expanding agricultural produce for developing countries. The IPR protects the seed companies who genetically modify the local seed varieties they get from our poor grannies and patent them. Under these provisions the sharing of seed is prohibited, a farmer cannot save seed from the previous harvest for replant, probably will not germinate, all this is detriment to food security. To make matters worse this provision has been included in the World Trade Organization for all countries to comply with the IPR provisions. Simple logic is that the WTO which is the governance of all trade and its powerful sanctioning power can cause economic shocks for countries that fail to comply with the IPR. The second question is which countries pull the strings in WTO? The third question is where do the largest seed producing companies come from? The issue is guys, Globalization is good as long as it is fair; the big racket behind the creation of markets of seed in Africa is driving us into hunger yet these rich countries who claim to assist have large reserves and even still dig deeper for our hard earned little resources to finish us off. Solutions should be by Africans, and they should find ways of getting out of poverty and avoid being food insecure.

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  2. Thanks very much Frank for your detailed contribution. I enjoyed reading the referenced texts. I must admit, most of these things are new to me. I am enjoying learning about them though.

    I particularly read the FAO DG's speech with interest. To me, it summarises my entire sentiments on this "we produce enough food to feed everyone...but we don't feed all" debate. The DG says "The latest figures show 205 million people in Africa, 27% of the population, are chronically hungry." Thats quite a compelling statistic. If it doesn't scream "SOMETHING IS WRONG!!" i dont know what will.

    In suggesting a way forward, the DG states, "Second, all states need to assume their responsibilities for meeting the basic needs of their people including the right to food." I am strongly in support of such sentiments. Above all, we need to take control of our situation and play a part in our own rescue excerssice. Clearly the fact that we are already in a very difficult situation makes it hard for us to make significant changes. The DG makes it clear where it says "Any country which has a fifth or more of its population chronically undernourished...is going to find the fast economic growth needed for poverty reduction elusive. It is like trying to drive a car with the hand brake on."However, we can at least stop digging ourselves deeper into this rut and start taking the necessary steps to get out of it.

    Therefore, i feel the responsibility still falls on the states and people suffering from the hunger and poverty challenge to play a part in helping themselves, even if it only means stretching out to accept well intentioned assistance.

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