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AFRICA [image, unknown] The food crisis

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You can't eat coffee
Africa’s 51 countries could feed three times their present population, says the Food and Agriculture Organisation. Yet Africa remains the hungriest continent in the world. Reporting from Zimbabwe - the ‘breadbasket of southern Africa’ - Wayne Ellwood explains why.

THE maize looks like it’s been blasted in a coke oven. All but a faint blush of green has been baked out of the coarse razor-edged leaves. The few’ scattered cobs on the thick stocks are pitifully stunted.

‘The drought has been hard on our maize,’ says Michael Gombera gesturing to the yellowing field in front of us. ‘The rains were light again this year in Zimbabwe and then when they finally came, it was too late.’

Three years of unprecedented drought in southern Africa has shrivelled crops and turned pasture to dust from Botswana to Zambia. But Michael Gombera is luckier than most peasants still trying to make a living off the land.

Gombera and his 80 co-op partners are amongst 42,000 peasant families who have benefited under the Mugabe government’s resettlement programme; a mammoth effort to relieve pressure on the over-crowded ‘Tribal Trust Lands’ to which black Zimbabweans were confined before Independence. Ownership - and use of land was at the very heart of the long battle for black rule in the ex-British colony. During the 90 years of white supremacy a few thousand commercial farmers had gained control over half the country’s land, while nearly seven million blacks were forced to survive on the remaining half.

This takeover of vast tracts of Africa under colonial rule was commonplace. From Senegal, Ivory Coast and Ghana to Kenya, Malawi and Zambia, mines and plantations lured workers from their villages and gobbled up huge chunks of the best agricultural land. Cash crops blanketed areas formerly given over to subsistence cultivation and livestock grazing.

This growing dependency on cash crop exports was to have a profound effect or African agriculture and inevitably on the ability of the continent to feed itself. Today Africans are the world’s hungriest people This year’s food deficit is three million tonnes, twice the figure in 1973 when the Sahel was racked by drought and famine. When black leaders came to power in the 1950s and 60s the system was firmly in place. Cash crops were the cornerstone of African agriculture and peasant farmers - still nearly 80 per cent of the population - were seen as a sign of all that was wrong with African farming; technically backward, unsophisticated and unproductive.

In white-ruled Rhodesia the rural population was largely ignored. Commercial farming areas dominated the high veldt which stretches from Bulawavo to Harare, then northeast to Mutare and the Mozambican border. The high veldt has the region’s most fertile soil, with the highest rainfall and most pleasant climate. Well-maintained highways link the major cities, providing speedy transport to processing and export markets for crops from the white-owned farms.

In addition, technical support for peasant farmers was slight and credit minimal. In 1978, for example, white farmers received $216 million in credit while blacks got just 2.4 million. Life in the Communal Lands (former Tribal Trust areas) went from bad to worse. Three-quarters of the black farming areas are on stoney or sandy soil in the hottest and driest parts of the country. The pressure of too many people on too little land took its toll. Many young men left to find jobs in Harare or Bulawayo, while others went to work as labourers on the commercial farms. But there were still too many mouths to feed. More and more land in the Communal Areas was ploughed for food. Soon fallow land was being cropped and grazing areas squeezed - and the ecological balance began to dip wildly.

But despite the downward spiral, Zimbabwe was until very recently self-sufficient in food production. The peasants were still able to grow’ or buy enough food to feed their families.

Now that has changed. Zimbabwe was once touted as the food basket of black nations in southern Africa. But in 1984 the country had to import maize - the main staple - for the first time in living memory. A further 600,000 tonnes of maize and 100,000 tonnes of wheat are still needed.

What went wrong? The region-wide drought has brought the country to a sobering halt. But it has only served to underline the real source of the country’s food deficit; the blatantly unequal distribution of potential food-growing land.

Zimbabwe is one black African nation that has tried to do something about land tenure. The resettlement of people from the Communal Areas onto new land is still a centre-piece of government policy - at least rhetorically. But the programme has run into a tangle of problems and barely a quarter of the government’s target of 162,000 families have 50 far been resettled.

‘We have to face reality,’ sax’s Movan Mohaci, Minister of Lands. Resettlement and Rural Development. ‘Reality in this case is a combination of drought, global recession, mounting debt and - most critically - the persuasive economic clout of 4.500 white commercial farmers. Combating the drought has drained resources away from resettlement. Mr Mohaci’s budget was slashed by 51 per cent in 1983.

The biggest barrier to government resettlement policy is the political and economic muscle of Zimbabwe’s 451)11 commercial farmers; they earn nearly half the country’s foreign exchange and produce 90 per cent of agricultural goods outside the subsistence sector. Some say the voice of the white farmers, the Commercial Farmer’s Union (CFU), is the most powerful organization in the country next to Mr Mugabe’s ruling ZANU-PF party. And the CFU’s Tennessee-educated Director, Daxid Hasluck, is sanguine about the government’s resettlement goals.

‘We don’t want to be smug or complacent about resettlement, says Mr Hasluck, chosing his words with care. ‘But we believe there is no way the resources or the political commitment remain to carry out that kind of programme; 162,000 families would take 70 per cent of commercial farmland.’ And that, according to Mr Has-luck, is simply not on the cards.

Many of those in the resettlement areas are beginning to lose patience with government promises. Some critics are more blunt. ‘This government has forgotten about the rural areas.’ one high-ranking aid agency official charged. ‘The only way to solve the food problem is to confront the power of the commercial farmers and so far the government has been silent.’

So the sides are drawn. In Zimbabwe, as in most African nations, the question is how to restructure an agricultural model geared to exports, subsidised by cheap, black labour and designed to benefit a small but influential group of city-dwellers and large landowners.

Peasant producers are routinely paid lip service by African leaders. But for the most part their needs are ignored as aid agencies and government planners attempt to expand the agricultural system inherited from their colonial past. Large-scale, mechanised projects have been seen as the logical solution to food shortages. If it worked in France or Australia then why not in Zambia or the Sudan?

And the peasants? Occasionally, as with a Canadian wheat-growing project in Tanzania, they lose their land. (There, the pastoral Barbaig tribe was moved aside to make way for a 60,000 acre prairie-style wheat farm - with subsequent overgrazing of surrounding land.) Sometimes there are a few jobs for farm labourers. But mostly they remain untouched by these megaschemes, living in poverty and watching the new crops flow to their city brothers and markets abroad.

The attraction of the quick fix is obvious. It avoids having to tackle the more fundamental question of why peasants remain poor and why peasant productivity is decreasing. (Food production per person dropped by 15 per cent in Africa during the 1970s.)

Zimbabwe’s Movan Mohaci sees motivation as the problem: ‘there are still many peasants who think, "what is the point of producing more than I need for my family?" But such an attitude cannot prevail under the modern economic system we’ve inherited. We need to motivate our people to plough both for domestic food requirements and for export.

It is precisely this lack of motivation which lies at the heart of Africa’s food problem. Peasants will only be motivated to produce a surplus when the financial returns are worth it. And they can only begin to think about that when they have adequate land and government support. That means taking a hard look at who owns the land, what is grown on it and who profits from it. It also means designing policies which will put peasant producers at the centre of food production - diverting money away from expensive Western-style agriculture towards support for improved marketing, storage and farming practises for small producers.

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‘Aid is the way in which the Western world is helping lift Africa out of the poverty’ - a comforting myth propounded by politicians and aid bureacrats that we are ‘doing our bit’ for Africa’s poor. But aid has become a business - a big business - and it has a lot of goals other than helping the poor.


There is certainly no shortage of aid going to Africa. From 1975 to 1981 total aid from all sources went from $6.8 billion to $10.5 billion. The West provides three-quarters of this. The big donors to Africa are the countries of the European Economic Community, particularly France and Britain, who maintain a strong economic interest in their former colonies. In fact there are more French and English in Africa - aid administrators, experts, technicians, volunteers and diplomats - than ran the colonial administrations of 30 years ago. These and other expatriates help maintain a neo-colonial ‘presence’. Their affluent lifestyle also serves as a model for ambitious African businessmen and officials to copy - a model which is expensive for poor African economies to support.

The main recipients of aid are the Sudan ($680m), Tanzania l$664m1, Kenya ($449m), Somalia ($359m), Zaire ($394m) followed closely by the drought stricken countries of the West African Sahel. The lack of results from this aid effort is striking. It is not a question of insufficient funds but of the use that is made of them. The Sahel provides a good case study of just what is wrong with much Western aid. The Sahel Development Program is a massive scheme supported by billions of dollars from the UN Food and Agricultural Organization and countries like France, Holland, Belgium and the US. Its purpose is to ‘rid the Sahel of food shortages and ecological deterioration, to overcome dependency and to raise the incomes and quality of life for 26 million people.’ To do this the project has created a series of large-scale food production schemes over eight countries producing everything from rice (for urban areas) to beef cattle (for export). Only 16 per cent of the billions of dollars of aid went to rainfed crops the poor peasants and nomads of the Sahel depend upon to survive. Most of the farming schemes involved large - scale irrigation and mechanized agriculture that excluded peasants. Little attention was paid to increasing badly needed storage facilities or to ensuring a fair distribution of the new food grown. The Sahel Development Program, like much of the aid going to Africa, reflects more the ideas and interests of the donors than the needs of Africa’s poor.

Aid is a major policy tool used by governments (in the West and in the East) to exercise their own influence. At best it is used to ensure the survival of the victims of famine or civil war who are in immediate peril. At worst it is used to ensure the survival of unpopular and corrupt governments like the US and French aid to the Mobutu government in Zaire or Soviet aid to Uganda in the Amin era. But it is always about survival, never development. Development implies change and self-reliance whereas aid is habitually directed toward the status quo - and usually comes with strings attached.

Aid rarely lessens dependency, It would often be more honest to call it budget assistance than development assistance. Most African governments need help just to make up their normal expenditures. And it is very difficult for fragile African economies to do without the aid crutch once used. In his 1967 Arusha Declaration, President Nyerere of Tanzania clearly spelled out the dangers of aid dependency and called for a self-reliant alternative. Yet today Tanzania is one of the biggest recipients of aid in Africa. When you are poor you have few cards to play.

The aid relationship assumes the recipients want to become like the donors (in economic terms); the result is that donors almost always call the tune. The tune may have a variety of lyrics - how to treat foreign investment, whether to grow peanuts or maize, how to vote at the United Nations or where to buy your manufactured imports. Some of these influences are subtle, like the preference for large - scale development projects, while others can be built right into aid agreements. Most donors have a provision for ‘tying’ a large percentage of their aid. Canada, for example, insists that two-thirds of the money it gives out in aid must be spent on Canadian goods.

There are simply too many people trying to get their hands on the aid dollar. And as long as aid has to serve the interests of foreign businessmen, aid bureaucrats and African governments the poor will see very little of it.

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New Internationalist issue 139 magazine cover This article is from the September 1984 issue of New Internationalist.
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