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The sweep of perpetual famine?

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Once again the media are presenting us with the images of the mother of all famines -- stretching from Yemen to Somalia, to Sudan and South Sudan, to the Central African Republic and to northern Nigeria. It’s a bad famine but there have been bad famines in the not so distant past -- the great Ethiopian one in 1985 which triggered the rock star, Bob Geldorf, to organise a massive world-wide popular response. (I remember running with tens of thousands of other campaigners in London’s Hyde Park.) Before that in 1974 at the World Food Conference, there was a real feeling that the world was running out of food and dramatic new policies must be put in place by the richer countries. They were and much progress was made. 


Between 1990 and 2015 the proportion of children under five who were malnourished fell from 25% to 14% of the world’s children. People who are still underfed are less severely so. Their average shortfall in calories fell from 170 a day in 1990 to 88 a day last year.   


Increased food production is happening all over the place. In Rwanda, in 2015, peasant farmers produced 792,000 tons of grain which was more than three times as much as in 2000. In Ethiopia cereal production tripled between 2000 and 2014. Cameroon, Ghana, Zambia, Nigeria and Kenya have all over the past decade increased their harvests by 50%.  


If one deducts from the African statistics the famine in parts of the east and northern Nigeria then African progress looks especially good. West Africa in particular has shown rapid improvement in food production. In Nigeria, for all its economic woes and its almost zero growth rate, agriculture is doing well, growing far faster than population. It is more important than the oil sector in terms of value but oil remains the biggest filler of government coffers so gets all the attention from politicians and the media.  


Growth in national income in sub-Saharan Africa is slowly but surely accelerating. Africa, like most parts of the world, has been hit by the Great Recession but most countries have dealt with falling agricultural commodity prices and smaller foreign markets with some success. It is in a strong position to take advantage of the present world recovery. Some African countries continued to grow all along at around 5% a year -- some at 7%, including Tanzania, Rwanda and Ivory Coast. They didn’t miss a beat.  


Agriculture for the foreseeable future will employ a majority of workers. It is mainly peasant agriculture working poor soils in difficult and uncertain weather conditions. Africa does not have the great fertile river basins of Asia whose fertility comes from the silt washed down through the ages from areas where tectonic activity produced mountains rich in nutrients. Nor does it have a water table near the surface, making bore holes more difficult. Much of the interior of Africa is barely worth farming. Only about 4% of arable land is irrigated. The Green Revolution has made inroads but much more slowly than it did in Asia which only has two main crops, rice and wheat. Africa has a dozen food crops and each has needed its own specialist development, along with the fight against plant and animal diseases which are much more prevalent there than elsewhere. Nevertheless, one sees these days a fairly rapid dissemination of improved seeds.  


Other aspects of technology are also making an impact. The mobile phone is number one. Already some African countries have as many phones per head as the US. It is estimated that within three years smart phone penetration will rise from 20% today to 50%. In Kenya, which has pioneered applications that the rich countries have followed belatedly, has for a long time now used phones to enable peasants to purchase credit for fertiliser and other inputs, to receive information on market prices thus cutting down the influence of middlemen, for migrants in the cities to send money home for investment, for nurses to reach remote patients and for consumers to pay with electronic money. Not least, as in India, for subsidies to the poor to be distributed directly without the graft of middlemen.  


Perhaps the greatest single aid to improving agriculture and increasing national incomes is to diminish war. Between 1970 and the end of the century war was all-consuming in many countries. These days there are remnants of war in eastern Congo, there is terrorist war in Somalia and civil war in South Sudan. Overall, there is little war today.  


More peaceful land is more productive. That is why the upcoming elections in Kenya are being watched nervously. The violence in earlier elections threw the rural economy off course. Now few want to see the rapid progress made in recent years being thrown to the wind by new electoral violence. The poor are not running to stay still they are running to make progress.  


For 17 years, Jonathan Power was a foreign affairs columnist for the International Herald Tribune.  

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