Talking Drums

The West African News Magazine

U.N. Meeting on Economic Crisis in Africa

Clyde Ahmad Winters

Due to the problem of hunger in Africa, much of the recent debate at the United Nations on the economic crisis in Africa which ended on November 6, revolved around the need for African countries to become self-sufficient in food. Clyde Ahmad Winters of Uthman dan Fodio Institute, Chicago, examines the issue.
The economic crisis in Africa was in the spotlight at the United Nations recently due to the declining economic conditions in Africa, West Africa is especially suffering due to the effects of a drought which appears to be expanding, and a steady decline in commodity prices for African goods.

In late October a U.N. report from the office of disaster relief coordinator, noted that "Despite a massive relief effort by national governments and the international community, there is no end in sight for the silent suffering of what is undeniably the worst human disaster in the recent history of Africa." This report said that over 35 million people in drought-ravaged Africa are "in desperate need of help" in 27 countries. It noted that of 27 African countries in need of food, 18 of these countries need food urgently

Although most of the emphasis on African food shortages was placed on Ethiopia and Somalia, where the situation is most severe, the International Red Cross, warned that "similar horror pictures" can happen in other parts of Africa. Paul Dahan, a Red Cross officer, who recently worked in Chad, noted that due to the civil war there and drought thousands of people have died, and 200,000 people displaced by drought move around the country in a desperate search for anything to eat." He added that "parents are abandoning their children because they cannot feed them any longer."

Due to the problem of hunger in Africa, much of the recent debate at the U.N. on the economic crisis in Africa which ended November 6, revolved around the need for African countries to become self-sufficient in food.

Food production is the major problem in Africa. In the 1960's most African countries were self-sufficient in cereal grains. But between 1970-1980, food shortages developed, as African governments which were ravaged by droughts, or expanded their production of cash crops to recover needed foreign exchange (for debt repayment), as prices for their raw materials declined, began to import food,

For example grain imports have grown from $187.5 million in fiscal 1980-1981 to $21.4 million by fiscal 1981-1982. According to the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization, by 1980 sub-Saharan Africa's agri- cultural production of the non-oil exporting countries was 1.3 per cent. In 1983 Africa's economy achieved a growth of 0.2 per cent. Agricultural production during this same period had dropped to 1 per cent, while the population grew around 3 per cent. As a result there are 150 million people in Africa today threatened by hunger and malnutrition.

The fact that the drought conditions in Africa appear to be the result of a general climatic change taking place in Africa should encourage African governments to investigate new agricultural techniques which may be employed in their countries to increase food production

A draft declaration resulting from the three-day debate on the economic crisis in Africa, noted that "Unless urgent action is taken, the rapidly deteriorating situation in Africa may well lead to disaster." The United States representative to the U.N., Jeane Kirkpatrick, maintained that the private sector is a key to long-term recovery, as a follow-up to similar suggestions concerning economic recovery made by President Reagan, at the IMF meeting earlier this fall. "Many parts of the continent, including areas that were previously net food exporters, have become dependent on food imports," noted Mrs. Kirkpatrick who told the U.N. delegates that "coercion failed where market incentives might well have succeeded."

Changes in "market mechanisms and adequate producer incentives," insists Mrs. Kirkpatrick, is "the most effective engines of economic development."

Other delegates, especially those from the socialist block, said that the profit motive was the cause of Africa's economic problems. The Cuban delegate Oscar Oramas-Oliver, blamed the economic sickness in Africa on "a century of colonial domination" which made inexpensive raw materials for the industrialized Northern nations, but it "left behind distorted economic structures." Although African leaders do place some of the blame on their former colonial masters, for the most part these leaders blame natural problems and themselves for their economic decline. They also recognize that Africans themselves will have to find solutions to many of their problems with the help of the industrialized nations.

Mr Koffi Adjoye of Togo, maintained that many of Africa's economic problems, although they are the result of "certain political errors" in African countries, can only be solved for the most part through the actions of the developed nations. He believes that the developed nations have to help Africa if long term recovery is ever to be reached, because African economies depend heavily on the export of raw materials, which are facing declining commodity prices. This inability to sustain fair commodity prices has increased the debt burden of African countries. According to Mr. Adjoyi, the debt service in Africa rose from $4 billion in 1981 to $10 billion in 1983.

Given the fact that the drought conditions in Africa appear to be the result of a general climatic change taking place in the Continent, African governments should be encouraged to investigate new agricultural techniques which may be employed in their countries to increase food production. Changes in agricultural methods alone, are urgently needed in West Africa, where according to Mr. Derek Winstanley, a dry-climate theorist rainfall in the Sahel over the last 120 years has dropped 25-45 per cent.

The Israeli delegate Benjamin Netanyahu, advised the African countries in the semiarid areas of Africa to use irrigation techniques to overcome recent ecological changes in many parts of Africa. This idea has long been promoted by the Chinese who have already developed many irrigation schemes for African governments.

Some U.N. delegates said that there are structural problems which limit growth, especially in the area of pricing and marketing, Mr. Stephen Lewis, of Canada, said that present policies in many African countries have "failed to provide adequate incentives to local producers."

Even though most of Africa is suffering from food shortages, some African countries have made progress in food production. The methods used by these countries to find solutions to the problem of food shortages offer hope for other African countries.

In West Africa Niger, Cameroon, and Togo have adopted measures which reflect local conditions that have allowed them to achieve food sufficiency. Using a combination of new agricultural methods and changes in the market structure have helped these countries to provide more food for themselves.

There is an abundance of potentially arable land in Africa, even in desert areas through irrigated agriculture. In Africa irrigated agricultural land ranges from .77 to 1.07 per cent, this means that there are insignificant gains in yield as compared to the production garnered through rain-fed agriculture.

But in Niger, expansion of irrigation projects and the opening of new farmland has helped it to solve many of its food problems. The government of Niger has opened up formerly barren land to rice cultivation, with the help of the Chinese. Between 1974-1984, Niger opened up 8,800 hectares for rice alone. Today over 100,000 more hectares are under cereal cultivation than in 1974. To help irrigate this land the government has sunk wells throughout the countryside, and invested in a $500 million dam. This is an impressive achievement in a country where two-thirds of the land area of 1.2 million kilometres is desert.

Cameroon, is also investing in irrigated agriculture to solve its food problems. It presently has 2000 wells in the countryside, in addition to a giant reservoir with a capacity of 7 billion cubic meters located in the arid north. In addition Cameroon provides its farmers with fertilizers, subsidized insecticides and seed.

Cameroon also operates a training course in farming methods, which has already graduated 2000 farmers.

Togo, is also increasing areas of irrigated agriculture. Already 40 dams have been built and 800 wells sunk for irrigation. Togo increased farmers' interest by rising the prices of agricultural products by 2.5 per cent four times between 1975-1980.

To better educate the Togolese farmers Togo has opened training centres in 21 districts to train agronomists and other farming specialists. The successful application of irrigated agricultural programmes in Niger, Cameroon and Togo, provide a possible solution for African countries presently unable to feed themselves, which is not cost effective but decisive in effect.

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