Recent months have witnessed two significant developments in the African continent. One, the re-emergence of food shortages in southern Africa, posing a real threat of famine in the region. Two, the launch of the New Partnership for African Development (Nepad), a programme framed by the joint effort of several African governments (led by Nigeria, South Africa, Algeria and Senegal) which is aimed at accelerating growth and reducing poverty in the region. The Nepad initiative, which was discussed at the Group of 8 (G8) summit in Kananaskis, Canada, will require extra aid-led funding of $64 billion a year if it is to meet its objective of achieving an annual growth rate of 7 per cent so as to reduce by half the number of those living in extreme poverty by the year 2015.
These two developments are not unrelated. The vulnerability of African countries to the threat of famine explains the nature of the Nepad initiative. It also explains the contrast between the eagerness with which African governments have pushed the Nepad programme and the tepid response it has received from the developed countries which are required to support it with the necessary finance.
The current threat of famine in Africa is real. According to reports, the regional director of the World Food Program has stated that southern Africa has not faced such widespread food shortages since the early 1990s, when a severe drought had struck the region. Malawi, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Lesotho have already likened the situation in their countries to a national calamity, and Mozambique and Swaziland are reportedly on the brink of a disaster. What is worse, there is little hope that the food crisis can be solved during the coming year. The survival of close to 5 million people is estimated at present to be dependent on flows of food aid. According to an end-April estimate of the World Food Program, about 145,000 tons of food, costing $69 million, are needed to tide over the coming months, as against the mere $3 million that had been pledged till then.
Famine or near-famine conditions in parts of Africa are by now almost routine phenomena. And, invariably, at every instance of crisis, as governments and international organizations issue alerts and television crews capture gruesome pictures of starving children, animal carcasses and half-abandoned villages, the international community of governments, aid agencies and NGOs are stirred to action, to alleviate the damage. But the fundamental challenge of Africa’s continued vulnerability remains unaddressed, as is revealed once again by this year’s situation.
There are widely differing views on the reasons for southern Africa’s endemic problem of food insecurity. We must recall here that the African countries have by no means been recalcitrant in implementing strategies that the World Bank, the IMF and the G8 recommend. Many of them have undergone several rounds of stabilization and structural adjustment, and are now among the most ‘open’ developing countries. This obviously implies that whatever be the sources of the weakness that leads to situations of extreme food insecurity in the African continent, neo-liberal policies have by no means helped redress them. On the contrary, these policies, which have denuded government revenues and limited public expenditures by curtailing deficits, have contributed to squeezing the much-needed public investments in the agricultural sector. They have also resulted in a shift in favour of cash-crop production that reduces the acreage under staple foodcrops, thus worsening food security.
The adoption of a neo-liberal policy framework by the Sub-Saharan African (SSA) countries in the 1980s forced them to engage in a primary exports thrust that resulted in export growth rates of 6 to 14 per cent per annum. But this had major negative implications for the structure of agricultural production. According to Utsa Patnaik, per capita foodgrains production in the SSA region fell through the decade of the 1980s and stagnated during the 1990s. Using UN data on cereals plus tubers and plantains, she found that in the six most populous countries of Sub-Saharan Africa, accounting for over three-fifths of the region’s population, cereals output fell by 33 per cent in the second half of the eighties and all-food output fell by one-fifth. For the entire region (forty-six countries), cereal output declined by 16.6 per cent and all-food output by nearly 12 per cent. The per head annual gross cereal output, which was already low, at 156 kg, to begin with, fell to even lower levels, coming down to 137 kg in 1990. The situation has not improved since. Given this background, it is not surprising that the region remains susceptible to famine.
This aspect of recent African history tends to be ignored among the causal explanations that abound when famine sweeps the countries in the region. This time around, too, the reasons being cited for the food crisis range from bad weather conditions to wars and civil strife, and even to Mugabe’s belated move to reclaim land from the whites that belonged originally to the black population. These factors taken together, it is argued, explain the failure of local governments and the world community to ensure that a region that has been subjected to periodic rounds of neo-liberal ‘reform’ has not been able to overcome the basic vulnerability that food insecurity implies.
In actual fact, however, the evidence regarding the contribution made by the policies imposed by the Bretton Woods institutions is even starker now. Consider, for example, the case of Malawi. The country’s 11 million people consume a little more than 2 million metric tons of maize, the staple, in a year. In normal years, Malawi’s farmers produce enough and more to service this demand. Unfortunately, floods in 2000-01 and drought the next year reduced maize output to an estimated 1.7 and 1.5 million metric tons, respectively. But this too need not have posed a problem, since surpluses from earlier years had been held as stock to meet such shortfalls.
The food crisis in Malawi has arisen because, as part of the conditions set under the IMF-World Bank’s debt relief initiative for highly indebted poor countries, the Muluzi government was forced, in August 2000, to sell abroad the whole of its 167,000 tons of maize reserves, ostensibly to reduce government spending and enhance foreign exchange reserves. If the government had not disposed of these stocks, the problems created by the floods and drought of the last two years could have been dealt with. But with the maize stocks having been cleared thus, the threat of famine and acute dependence on food aid has become real. The IMF blames the government’s optimistic harvest forecasts for 2001 as being responsible for the crisis, while organizations like Save the Children Fund, besides the Malawi government, squarely blame the IMF for the current distress of the people of Malawi.
The tragedy is that Africa’s vulnerability, created in the first instance by the neo-liberal policy package recommended by the World Bank and the IMF, provides the basis for further inroads into the continent by these very agencies. While, on the surface, the effort to alleviate the debilitating consequences of food shortage and famine is coordinated by agencies such as the World Food Program and the NGO community, the financial support required to put in place a reasonable effort must come from the G8 and multilateral institutions. This provides an opportunity for all of them to exercise their leverage and, further, push through policies of the kind that contributed to the crisis in the first place. Moreover, it also becomes an occasion to target any initiative that the developed countries find unpalatable.
In Zimbabwe, for example, the shortfall in corn, created by a combination of factors — erratic rainfall and the shift out of maize cultivation by white ‘commercial farmers’ threatened by the land seizure movement – presents a situation that is difficult but not impossible to handle. Since the deficit this year is estimated to be around 1.5 million tons, the remedial effort has to be massive and requires support from western governments. But this support is not forthcoming because the developed countries are ‘unhappy’ with President Mugabe’s land seizure policies and alleged ‘rigging’ of the recent election, which saw Zimbabwe’s government lose the support of some African friends (especially South Africa’s Thabo Mbeki) and its membership of the Commonwealth. Therefore, the food problem has turned serious. Mugabe’s battle is against what he sees to be hypocrisy on the part of western governments, who have singled him out as a symbol of misgovernance even as they support corrupt governments elsewhere, with the real reason for their opposition being his land seizure policies, The net result is that food aid has been slow to reach Zimbabwe, for western interests are now looking to the emergence of a new government there.
For a continent that is not just vulnerable but has been virtually battered into aid dependence, such exploitation and conversion of moments of vulnerability into moments of leverage has proved difficult to withstand. Their weak position has forced many of the governments in the region to internalize the policies recommended by the IMF and the World Bank and to treat them as their own, in the hope that they will be able to obtain western support in times of crisis and derive some marginal benefits from the process of globalization in the medium term. This tendency to internalize the neo-liberal doctrines purveyed by the Bretton Woods twins and the G8 governments they represent has obviously been welcomed by the latter. It saves them the embarrassment of facing accusations like those being made in Malawi, where the obvious link between debt-relief conditionalities and the current crisis (via sale of food surpluses abroad) has revealed the damaging impact of IMF-style programmes.
Not surprisingly, the process of internalization of neo-liberal policies and western interests is now being sought to be institutionalized. One form that such institutionalization has taken (and is taking) is the Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper mechanism, according to which domestic governments were expected, based on a participatory process involving local bodies and civil society organizations, to develop a growth and poverty alleviation strategy as a prerequisite for consideration for funding. This had two advantages. First, it foregrounded the smokescreen of poverty reduction, thereby helping to conceal the inherently inequalizing tendencies of neo-liberal growth policies. Second, instead of viewing such policies as imposed from outside through IMF-style conditionalities, governments implicitly claimed ownership of them.
In Africa this use of the smokescreen of poverty reduction and the transition to policy ownership has assumed continental dimensions, in the form of the New Partnership for African Development initiative. The partnership, between African governments and the G8, aims at overcoming Africa’s underdevelopment and ‘exclusion’ and, of course, Africa’s poverty, by embracing the process of globalization and ensuring better governance. Embracing globalization implies, in practice, furthering the marketist regime that has been imposed on these countries in the past and which has been responsible for many of their problems. And better governance implies a process of ‘peer review’ of governments to ensure that they follow western-style ‘democratic’ practices. The first casualty of such ‘peer review’ was Zimbabwe’s membership of the Commonwealth.
This internalization of the problem-solving process essentially implies that international inequality, unequal trade and the hegemony of developed countries will not be seen as constraints to the development process. Thus, while in the past developments such as those that occurred in Malawi would have been seen as a consequence of dependence and domination, which needs to be opposed, in the future, they could be attributed to internal policies or the failure of governance. The IMF, for example, would not have to argue, as it did in Malawi, that the ‘original sin’ was an erroneous forecast of harvest by government agencies. The Malawi government itself would in all probability admit to the same, or be ‘peer reviewed’ into accepting the same. This ability on the part of governments of developed countries to push or buy out Africa’s elite to fully ‘own’ the processes that impoverish their people, is imperialism’s greatest post-War success yet in the African continent.
However, given the vulnerability of most African nations, some developed countries, especially the US, for whom Africa is strategically not that important, are not even willing to pay a price for their victory. Despite the estimates made by the Africans ‘themselves’ that the Nepad programme needs additional annual support of $64 billion, the Africa Action Plan agreed upon at the recent Kananaskis summit only incorporated a commitment to direct half the increase in G8 aid budgets (by $12 billion by 2006) announced at Monterrey to Africa – a sum rightly dismissed as ‘peanuts’ by many NGOs, including Oxfam and Cafod. The Action Plan declared: ‘Assuming strong African policy commitments, and given recent assistance trends, we believe that in aggregate half or more of our new development assistance could be directed to African nations that govern justly, invest in their own people and promote economic freedom.’ However, under pressure from the US, it left each developed country’s commitment flexible. ‘Each of us will decide, in accordance with our respective priorities and procedures, how we will allocate the additional money we have pledged’, the Plan said. Further, the US National Securty Adviser Condoleezza Rice’s ‘assurance’, that more than half of US international aid could go to Africa if the African nations implemented their promise to pursue good governance, clearly underscores the rationale on which such commitments are premised: it is when the victim is most vulnerable that he can be easily battered into total submission.