The factors behind the global food crisis may be complex, but its impact is simple in its brutality. The worst affected countries are those which need to import agricultural produce, and the hardest hit people are those who spend the largest proportion of their incomes on food.
It is therefore the poorest people in the poorest countries who are feeling the brunt of this catastrophe. The Food and Agriculture Organisation notes that 21 of the 37 countries worst affected by high food prices are in Africa, including four of the five countries deemed to be facing “exceptional shortfalls”.
Yesterday the Africa Progress Panel, on which I sit, produced its inaugural report on the state of Africa, assessing the state of the continent’s development and identifying the challenges that threaten progress.
Chaired by Kofi Annan, and including statesmen and women, development experts and high-profile campaigners, the Panel was established to focus world leaders on their commitments to Africa. It has been uncompromising in its assessment and in its demands.
The report calls for immediate measures to tackle the current food crisis. The supply of food must be increased by raising the level of financial assistance to the governments of affected countries and aid agencies. All countries must make every effort to increase the quantity of food on international markets, so that the World Food Programme, relief organisations, and individual governments are able to purchase food.
If the scale of the emergency is not acknowledged, or the response to it is delayed, then we will see an increase in hunger and malnutrition. The cost of food will not only be measured in the price of wheat or rice, but also in the rising number of infant and child deaths across Africa.
What gives this call to action added resonance is the fact that the African continent over the last few years has been making real, tangible progress. Gross domestic product per capita across Africa has risen steadily since 1994.
According to the most recent estimates of the International Monetary Fund, the rate of growth reached 6.6% in 2007, exceeding the Middle East and Latin America. The number of people living in poverty has leveled off over the past few years, and Africa’s poverty rate has declined by almost 6 percentage points since 2000. There have also been significant improvements in health and education.
Primary school enrollment has increased 36 percentage points between 1999 and 2005, and infant and child mortality have declined in many parts of the continent. These hard-fought gains are now at risk. The Panel’s report shows that the food crisis threatens to destroy years, if not decades, of economic progress in Africa.
100 million people could be pushed back into absolute poverty. For me, this is where the real tragedy lies. The very people who have fought against the odds, harnessed their talents to better their lives, and dared hope that their children will continue the journey, could see their efforts reduced to nothing.
It is the ability of these people in particular to have a stake in their economies that will, I believe, determine the future prosperity and security of our continent.The Panel is therefore calling for more than immediate outside assistance to alleviate the problems of high food prices. As Africans we must take responsibility for the fundamental, structural problems with agricultural productivity on our continent.
With the lowest use of fertilizers in the world, average grain yield in Africa is less than one ton per hectare, equivalent to just one quarter of the global average. Our population has increased, yet African agricultural yields have stagnated since the early 1960s. We must therefore raise agricultural productivity and increase food production.
This includes reforming outdated policies and investing in key inputs such as fertilizer, improved seeds, effective water management and new crop varieties, and linking farmers to markets via investments in basic infrastructure. In short, Africa needs a green revolution. If the challenge seems daunting, then there is some comfort in knowing that the expertise and the experience exist.
With appropriate technology and support, for example, Malawi has gone from experiencing serious food shortages to becoming both self-reliant and a net exporter of food. The key is to build on this success and replicate it across the continent.
It is no co-incidence that the Africa Progress Panel has published its report just a few days ahead of the European Council Summit in Brussels and a few weeks ahead of the G8 Summit in Hokkaido, Japan. Our report shows that, despite progress on debt relief and significant increases in assistance by individual countries, the G8’s commitments to double assistance to Africa by 2010 – agreed at Gleneagles in 2005 – are badly off-track.
With a shortfall of US$ 40 billion in aid, G8 countries must urgently address the deficits against their targets, set clear timetables for delivery and increase transparency in order to improve the quality of aid. The food crisis has put a clear premium on the G8 delivering its original pledges.
I am conscious that on numerous occasions in the last few decades, it has been said that Africa is at a cross-roads. If we agree that the continent has demonstrated real progress in the last decade, and we acknowledge that the food crisis threatens to reverse much of this, then we are – once again – at a defining moment.
European and G8 leaders should be in no doubt when they gather in Brussels and Hokkaido that they face a very real test of leadership. Many millions of people across the world - and no more so than in Africa - are demanding that they deliver.
Graça Machel is a member of the Africa Progress Panel. The Panel’s full report can be accessed on www.africaprogresspanel.org