Ecologically Nothing Ever Really Dies

EcoLogically Nothing Ever Really Dies, Only transformed from one useful form to another...

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

No band aid solutions for food insecurity in Africa.

Africa is still the poster child of hunger and malnutrition on the planet. In fact, Africa is still the poster child of a lot of ills of the world actually. Here is a thought experiment. Humour me. Close your eyes and think of Africa. Allow random images of the continent to cross your mind uninterrupted. Go on, stop reading for 10 seconds and do it. Done? Now give yourself a high-five if those images didnt include a starving child (most likely with a distended stomach, and a couple of flies buzzing around). Another high-five if you didn't see disease and death (HIV and Ebola, if you have a flair for the dramatic). Yet another if those images didn't include war and rape. These are the images that are flighted to represent Africa all around. Unfortunate as it is, thats how it is.

Recently, I have been following a debate on the Band Aid song by a guy called Bob Geldof. He is supposed to have been famous at some time in recent history. I confess I only got to know about him through this controversy. Any way, this here guy wrote a song as part of his anti-poverty efforts in Africa called “do they know its Christmas” back in 1984 and got some popular musicians of that time to sing it to raise money. A remake of it has been done recently in response to the Ebola situation in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. It has some catchy albeit ridiculous lyrics that echo those unfortunate images of Africa. See video below and keep an ear out for these lyrics;

There's a world outside your window,
And it's a world of dread and fear,
Where the only water flowing,
Is the bitter sting of tears,
And the Christmas bells that ring there are the clanging chimes of doom,
Well tonight were reaching out and touching you,
And bring peace to Africa,
Where nothing ever grows,
No rain nor rivers flow,

I have no interest in the lyrics myself, they do not surprise me. I suppose they serve the intends of a song writer's dramatic effect by following the widely held African gloom and doom narrative. Anyway, enough people have challenged Geldof and his ever changing “band of aid” over this. My trigger comes not from the lyrics (although i am certainly not a fan) but rather from a compulsive need to understand the food security challenges in Africa that lead to such songs being written.

Africa has the majority (27%) of the world's undernourished 800 million people because the food systems on the continent are failing to sustain adequate food (quantity and quality) for all on the continent. How did we get here? Here is one of the multitude of reasons why. Lets start with the 1980s, the time period that Geldof and his merry band of “salvation” sang their song. This was a time when the continent was indeed hit by a number of droughts (maybe thats where they were getting the illusion of “nothing ever grows”). In the 1980s, a shift in food systems and agricultural policies occurred. This shift was towards liberal food systems anchored on international trade with restrictions on protectionism. The shift was a response to a reactive ideology on food security brought about by the world food crisis of the early 70s. After the world food conference of 1974, food security was premised on stabilising world food supply and prices and not necessarily on local food self sufficiency. The results of these ideological changes were policies that supported a system of global trade and control of food systems. Food shifted from primarily a source of nutrition as it should be, to a commodity of trade foremost.

If African countries were to be competitive under this new regime of global policy, they needed support. This made sense at the time because we had a continent that either had newly minted countries or countries still fighting wars of liberation from colonisation. As such these countries were not stable enough to be globally competitive, had poor infrastructure and a weak hold on the exploitation of their natural resource base. In comes aid. Yes Mr. Geldof, aid (something you should know a lot about...insert sad poverty song here...). The aid was conditional on commitments to Structural Adjustment Programmmes (SAPs) that demanded that African countries liberalise their agricultural system among other economic activities. This exposed a weakly anchored continent to well established European and American agriculture and economies. From this time, large scale private owned production systems became the drivers of agricultural contribution to food and economic growth through export and agro- industry centered agriculture. Although this ensured an increase in private capital into the food sector, expansion of food choices available to consumers, boosting global food supply, it disenfranchised the poor in Africa by marginalising small scale family farmers. During this period (1980-2000), growth per capita of food production in Africa only grew by 2%, compared to 11% post 2000 and the import-export ratio of agricultural in Africa rose to 1.38 compared to 0.34 in 1961.

So Mr. Geldof, before you write another sad African “salvation” song, you need to realise that aid is not the answer to a lasting solution to Africa's food insecurity challenge. Aid, especially your kind of reactive aid offers only a “band aid” temporary reprieve. Structural Adjustments are part of the problem and structural transformation will form part of the solution. Certainly not the structural changes suggested in the 1980s when you wrote and asked your  friends to sing about dry rivers and stinging tears. Try songs about getting a fair deal for African produce on the international market. Better yet, songs about the rights of Africans to socially and culturally appropriate foods. While you are at it, write songs about the rights to protect local African farmers from the dumping of heavily subsidised foreign agricultural produce. Craft hooks around responsible investments and putting a stop to widespread corporate land grabs on the continent. If this sounds boring and lacking a dramatic “dread and fear” angle, thats because it is. But this is partly what Africa needs, not sad or alarmist kumbaya lyrics on pull-at-your-heart-strings backdrop music.

Most importantly, Africa doesn't really need a “savour band”. A shift is occurring. There is widespread understanding of the harm of aid and its accompanying conditionalities. There is a solid appreciation of the harm of neo-liberal policies on agriculture and food security on the African continent. From the early 2000s, agriculture and food systems in Africa have begun to change to ideas that support the right of local populations to determine the kinds of food they farm and consume, superceeding global food demand pressures. Focus is shifting towards household and individual entitlements, something that was largely ignored by the trade and agro-industry centred neo-liberal trade ideas. A shift towards the implementation of this self sufficiency ideology, is underway, something that was planned for but difficult to achieve during the pre-1980 period. African agriculture requires investments that do not undermine these rights and ideas, appropriate technology transfers and innovations, a wholesome science led structural transformation. If we must sing (I do hope we dont have to), and we are sure that the songs that have been sung so far arent working (given we are singing the exact same song 30 years in, albeit for a different cause), why not change to a new tune. A tune that will rally support for lasting food security and sovereignty solutions in Africa, not "band aid" responses.