Photo by Matt and Kim Rudge

Debating the root causes of the African food crisis

Evert-jan Quak | 20 August 2011

On Thursday 18 August the FAO had a follow-up Emergency Ministerial-Level Meeting on the deteriorating food situation in the Horn of Africa. Famine has been formally declared in several regions of Somalia, but populations in neighbouring countries like Kenya, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Uganda and South Sudan are also affected by the crisis. The day-long meeting ended with a call for a twin track approach that involves meeting pressing relief needs as well as addressing the root causes of the problem.

FAO Director-General Jacques Diouf said: “Even as we deal with saving lives today, we should also go further and take steps to prevent future calamities. We have to start building for the future, now! Comprehensive, government-endorsed investment plans are already available, but the funding gaps are clear and large. If governments and their donor partners do not invest in agriculture now, the appalling famine we are struggling to redress will return to shame us yet again.”

The FAO concluded that the food crisis in the Horn of Africa was triggered by drought, conflict and high food prices, the underlying reason for the region’s vulnerability to such shocks is underinvestment in agriculture and inadequate management of natural resources. More details on the conclusion of the FAO meeting and how to safeguard local food production in the future can be read here.

The debate about the root causes of the current food crisis in East Africa is in full speed now. For example the impact of world food prices on the crisis has been studied by the World Bank’s Food Price Watch.  The conclusion is that the volatile global food supply has contributed to the humanitarian catastrophe in the Horn of Africa. Drought, especially in the armed conflict areas of Somalia, triggered the current crisis, but “food prices that are near the record high levels seen in 2008 also contributed to the situation”. Interesting is that the report warns that the rising food prices are directly linked with the production of biofuels. On the local markets in Africa food prices rises are much higher than the world average. Corn prices doubled in Kampala, Mogadishu and Kigali over the last year, the report says. Sorghum prices have increased with 240 percent over the last year in parts of Somalia.

What is the connection with the global volatile food prices as the local harvests felt dramatically because of the drought? It is all about het shrinking global food stocks. If stocks are low this creates a situation where a small percentage fall in yields can have an amplified effect on prices, the report warns. The relationship with biofuels is that the increasing production of biofuels is a major reason of the shrinking global food stocks. “Another factor that adds to the potential upward pressure on the price of maize is the diversion into the production of bioduels”, says the report.

Vinod Thomas, director general and senior vice-president of the Independent Evaluation Group within the World Bank Group wrote his ideas about how to prevent the next food crisis in Africa on The Guardian’s website. He writes: “The region has faced droughts every few years, and each time they have set back progress on reducing poverty, disrupted food production systems and jeopardised the lives of millions of people. The sharp rise in food prices this year makes the situation worse. The severity of the drought and its ominous link to climate change this time around deepen the concern over the current devastation.”

The nature of the crisis highlights the need to build resilience in two ways, following Thomas. First, by supporting the development of reliable early warning systems and of flexible social safety nets to protect the most vulnerable groups. Second, by strengthening agricultural and agribusiness systems by improving farmers’ access to drought-resistant varieties of crops, improved rainwater-harvesting technologies and information from weather-forecasting systems, combined with investments in irrigation development.

Thomas sees the improvement in Ethiopia with the Productive Safety Net Programme in 2005 as a success story that can be helpful for neighbouring countries. That is an interesting case to study, but the solutions Thomas suggests will not be enough. For example there was an early warning on the drought, but no-one acted after the warning in a proper way. Furthermore it isn’t only about technology and information, it is access to pasture (common) lands and equal civil rights for the marginalised nomadic people of East-Africa.

Also the link between climate change and development is crucial in Africa and for the long-term solutions. For example the UNEP shows that investing in the restoration and maintenance of the Earth’s ecosystems, from forests and mangroves to wetlands and river basins, can have a key role in countering climate change as well as climate-proofing vulnerable economies. For East of Africa the UNEP suggests the restoration of Kenya’s Manu forest, which is one of Sub-Saharan Africa’s largest closed canopy forest and the source of the Yala and Nyando rivers, must have priority. Decades of deforestation have had devastating effects.

Food prices, production of biofuels, conflict, climate change, deforestation, access to pasture land and of course the drought itself caused the current food crisis in East Africa, and probably much more that I've not mentioned. But in a way we are repeating ourselves. After every drought in Africa we keep saying we will do it next time better with long-term solutions and looking at the root causes of the famine. But when the humanitarian crisis is getting better, there doesn't seem to be a priority to invest heavily in the region. In this aspect it is interesting to read the interview Devex did with Jean-Alexandre Scaglia, senior operations officer of the FAO’s emergency operations and rehabilitation division.

He says: “When you discuss with people to invest a bit of money for pastoralism in Djibouti, people would say, “Is it really a priority?” (...) Usually, for many countries – with maybe the exception of Somalia, where the situation is completely different because of the political crisis there – these pastoralist populations are marginal, and the contribution of the traditional pastoralism – livestock, nomadic way of living – is a marginal contribution to the economy of the country. But we have to take into account that for these people living in these areas, it is the single way of surviving.”

“[If] you really want to have an impact in these semi-arid areas, we have to be honest: The level of the investment is quite high. If you really want to develop irrigation systems, it is possible, but the cost is high. You may end up – if you are very logical – to say, maybe it’s not a priority. Then, of course, when there is again drought, we are asking again the same question, why investments were not made on time?”

Photo credit main picture: Photo by Matt and Kim Rudge