Africa is Starving as the World Feeds on Iraq

Wednesday 2 April 2003, by Daphnée DION-VIENS

PHOTO: ACDI

While the international community focuses its attention on Iraq, another crisis is quietly brewing - Africa is once again facing the threat of famine. The situation attests to the precariousness of meeting the basic nutritional requirements of millions of people on the planet. Many are now contending that globalization, far from being the solution, may be part of the problem.

This past December, the French daily Libération proclaimed that 2003 will be the "Year of Famine." The United Nations’ World Food Programme estimates that 38 million Africans are at risk of dying because of hunger. Its Executive Director, James Morris, recently delivered a strident wake up call to the United Nations Security Council, attempting to avert a crisis he characterized as "unprecedented in scale and severity."

The dire situation which faced Sub-Saharan Africa at the end of 2002 has stabilized somewhat, thanks in large part to humanitarian aid. Nevertheless, millions remain at risk in Ethiopia and Eritrea. In addition, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) recently announced that five countries in West Africa are experiencing severe food shortages.

These shortages are being blamed on the drought now affecting a number of countries in Africa. In a recent press release, however, the international NGO Action contre la faim stressed that "the climate […] must not be seen as fate, in that it would explain in and of itself the scope of these food crises and the frequency with which they occur. Rather, these conditions aggravate all too ordinary and unacceptable food shortages." According to Anne Degroux, the group’s spokesperson, "we have to take a close look at a variety of causes and find solutions based on those, beyond simply responding to short-term crises."

Daily hunger

The numbers are astounding: 24 000 people die of hunger every day. That’s one person every four seconds.
815 million human beings suffer from malnutrition and 30 million, mostly children under five years of age, die from it every year, according to estimates from the FAO. The largest number of victims live in Africa, where 34 percent of the population is severely malnourished.
An recent FAO report, "The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2002," states that "widespread hunger in a world of abundance is essentially the result of poverty." A World Bank study estimated that between 1991 and 2001, when the gross global product doubled and the volume of international trade tripled, the average revenue per person in 81 of the 100 poorest countries declined.

Jean Ziegler, food rights assessor for the United Nations, sees the problem of hunger in the world as being linked to the distribution of resources. In his latest work, Les nouveaux maîtres du monde et ceux qui leur resistant ("The New Masters of the World and Those Who Resist Them"), he notes that "considering the technical level we have reached in terms of agricultural production, the Earth should be able to feed 12 billion human beings" about twice than our current population. Degroux echoes this view: "One of the most serious problems we are facing is the improper distribution of resources."

In his essay "Big Business, Poor People," British environmental and development expert John Madeley argues that free trade has led to increased poverty in the South. "The multinational corporations, not the starving people, are the ones benefiting from the current levels of economic growth and the liberalization of trade. Far from liberating the hungry, free trade has actually imprisoned them." Madeley uses Kenya as one example: like many other African countries, its dependence on exports is leading it to neglect its own domestic food supply. For a number of years, Kenya has been developing a flower-cultivation industry, aimed exclusively at foreign markets. Lands that were once used for grazing and farming are now used to grow flowers destined for export. This is proving to be yet another blow to local producers, who can no longer compete with large multinational corporations for scarce farmland.

Like Madeley, Ziegler blames market globalization for the economic inequalities that create the conditions for famine. In explaining how institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization (WTO) set down the conditions for liberalizing trade, Ziegler points to Niger. Located in West Africa, Niger is the second-poorest country on the planet. As a result of its heavy debt load, Niger has had to go along with the demands of the IMF, which has imposed a privatization scheme affecting public services such as the National Veterinary Bureau. Veterinary pharmaceuticals are now provided by the local representatives of multinational corporations, and prices have become so high that local livestock producers can no longer afford them.

Consequently, disease is claiming entire herds, leaving thousands of families penniless and unable to feed themselves. According to Abdourahamane Ousmane, editor of the Nigeran newspaper "Alternative," "privatization was a final blow to a population that was already suffering." He points out that the situation is much worse now than it was in the 1990’s.

"If we examine the facts, we can see that after two decades of intense trade liberalization - namely the 1980’s and 1990’s - the problem of famine remains considerable," says Madeley. "How can we expect to develop long-term sustainable agriculture by focusing on large-scale enterprise and destroying the means of subsistence of small farmers? How is it possible to establish a secure food supply by essentially ruining the agricultural sector?"

Missing the mark

The FAO report states that, between 1990-92 and 1998-2000, the total number of malnourished people decreased by 2.5 million per year. In most developing regions, however, the numbers actually went up. If this trend is not reversed soon, the FAO concludes that there will be no chance of achieving the main objective set out at the 1996 World Food Summit: reducing the number of malnourished people on the planet by half by the year 2015.

To achieve this goal, the number of people suffering from malnutrition will have to be reduced by 24 million every year, which would require an additional annual investment of $20 billion. The FAO estimates, however, that such an investment in the health and productivity of thousands of people could generate $120 billion each year. Meanwhile, the armed conflict in Iraq is estimated to be costing US$200 billion, and the price tag of maintaining order in the region could spiral up to US$500 billion (Libération, March 6, 2003).

During the second African Social Forum, which took place in Ethiopia this past January, attendees spoke out to denounce the effects of globalization on the food security of Africa’s people. Among the solutions put forward: pulling out of the WTO’s agricultural accords and supporting small farmers’ organizations in order to resist the policies of governments and international institutions.

À propos de Daphnée DION-VIENS

Assistante à la rédaction, Journal Alternatives

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