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April 21, 2008

Africa deserves, needs green revolution urgently, desperately

When was the last time you were hungry? Not the pang of a missed breakfast or delayed lunch, but the gnawing obsession of a hunger that has lasted 24 hours? For me, it was 25 years ago - when, for 10 days I lived off one bowl of gruel a day for breakfast. The memory of the desperate desire for food followed by a debilitating weakness has lasted a quarter of a century. But while my experience was a lifestyle choice, for the villagers of the rural district of Katine, in Uganda, it is their everyday life.

Uganda, with the help of debt relief and increased aid, may have got 5 million extra children into school, but a significant number of them turn up with empty stomachs and struggle to concentrate before they return home for their one meal a day. Meanwhile, their mothers' health is worn down by inadequate nutrition as they exhaust themselves working their fields and providing for their children. Katine's struggle with hunger is typical; a third of the population of sub-Saharan Africa is undernourished.

In recent years, headlines have been dominated by the western plague of obesity, but now hunger has re-emerged to take prominence in the minds of global decision-makers. The spike in food prices has mobilised much-needed attention - there is nothing like the threat of hunger prompting rioting and political instability to focus politicians' minds. There is nothing like rising food prices to prompt Malthusian panic about need outstripping food supply. The food-price spike is laced with a particular guilt as biofuels snatch food from the mouths of hungry babies to feed SUV fuel tanks, and richer countries' taste for meat gobbles up global grain supplies.

So there are all the ingredients - panic, guilt, political instability - to galvanise political attention. The danger is that it might lead only to short-term solutions such as food aid and budget support for cash-strapped governments, and what gets overlooked, yet again, is the desperate urgency for major investment in sub-Saharan agriculture to ensure that it finally gets the green revolution it deserves - and badly needs.

The plight of the hungry in Africa has a history that goes back well before biofuels or China's taste for meat had begun to make their presence felt. The vital statistics of African agriculture are bleak: yields are on average a quarter of those of other parts of the world, soil fertility has declined, and agricultural productivity per capita has steadily fallen since 1961 while it has risen everywhere else. This African failure is compared with the green revolution of Asia and has been attributed to too little rain, too sparse a population and too few roads and railways. These have all played their role, as has conflict. But they cannot be used to conceal what is arguably the biggest cause of Africa's failure to feed its peoples: monumental economic incompetence, and self-interest on the part of western donors and advisers.

The underinvestment and neglect of African farming go back to colonial times, but became increasingly apparent as the western development agenda gathered force. In the 60s and 70s agriculture was squeezed to pay for industrial development. But with the arrival of structural adjustment packages - deregulation, trade liberalisation and sharp cuts in state expenditure - imposed by the west in the 80s, the damage began to bite. The Washington consensus ruled that, freed from state intervention, the market would stimulate African agriculture, explains Steve Wiggins, a research fellow at the Overseas Development Institute. State funding was stripped out of state agricultural extension services, research and development, and farmers' marketing and credit facilities - all elements critical to Asia's green revolution.

The effect was catastrophic. Without improved seeds and availability of credit for fertiliser, productivity limped along. At every turn, farmers were knocked back. Kevin Watkins, of Oxford University, points out that where they did manage to improve yields, they faced exorbitant costs for transporting goods to market because of inadequate rural roads. Often when they got to market, they found it flooded with imports dumped by the west.

Through the 90s, aid flows began to increase as anxiety grew about how African development had stagnated. But the orthodoxy that the state had a role only in health and education - not in fostering economic growth - persisted. Donors were hostile to investment in agriculture: between 1990-02 and 2000-02 aid was rising but the amount going into developing agriculture dropped by 43%. It currently amounts to only 4% of all development assistance to the continent. Malawi in 2006 was the case study that proved the orthodoxy wrong: to avert famine after a catastrophic harvest, the government subsidised seed and fertiliser. The results were a good harvest, thousands of lives saved, and continuing economic stability.

Malawi's story has helped challenge three decades of priorities driven by free-market fundamentalism. There is a realisation that growth in agricultural productivity is pivotal to the achievement of the millennium development goals for 2015. About 70% of sub-Saharan Africa depends on agriculture, so small increases in productivity have a dramatic impact on health and education. The development agenda takes a long time to shift course, but this year's world development report on agriculture was the closest the World Bank gets to a mea culpa - "Oops, we've left out agriculture."

The agenda can't be all about growing roses in Ethiopia and beans in Zambia, but must include how to invest in the millions of smallholders who feed the continent. Kofi Annan heads up a Gates- and Rockefeller-funded Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, which is investing in research into crops resistant to disease and water shortage, to suit the diversity of conditions across Africa. It's late but, let's hope, not too late.

There are reasons to be cheerful, because tucked into the overall picture of decline are some remarkable successes, which are proof of the potential to significantly increase yields. Improving access to fertiliser reaps considerable benefits. The spectacular expansion of mobile phones in Africa could help farmers market their surpluses. One of the most extraordinary instances of the shrewdness and determination of African farmers has been the near eradication of rinderpest, a livestock disease, in the past 20 years.

Africa's population is projected to carry on increasing dramatically; there will be millions more mouths to feed, and by 2050 the impacts of climate change could put an additional 60 million at risk of hunger. There is an urgent need to develop the systems of water management that could ensure Africans can feed themselves. That's what makes the decades of ideologically driven or politically determined ineffectual policies so outrageous: we have lost valuable time in adapting a system of agriculture that will be hit harder than anywhere else in the world by climate change.

The Guardian

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