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Date: Sat, 18 Mar 1995 22:32:50 -0500 (EST)
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Subject: PNEWS: Myths of African Hunger
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/* Written by foodfirst in igc:dev.foodfirst */
/* ---------- "Myths of African Hunger" ---------- */

Myths of African hunger

By Kevin Danaher and Abikok Riak, Spring 1995

Food First Backgrounder
Institute for Food & Development Policy
Please read informational material on the Institute at the end of this piece. See dev.foodfirst for more Institute publications.

In 1990, approximately 4.2 million African children died as a result of malnutrition-related disease. An additional 30 million were underweight.(1)

In the public discussion of African hunger, many myths and misconceptions have been created about why so many Africans go hungry. For those of us who want to put an end to needless suffering, it is important to understand the real causes of hunger in Africa.

Myth one: Nature is the main cause of famine in Africa.

Drought and other natural disasters in many parts of Africa have intensified hunger, but poverty is the real cause of famine. Only the chronically impoverished die from the effects of drought, and Africa's impoverishment has been several hundred years in the making. As European countries colonized Africa, they disrupted farming and herding systems that for centuries Africans had adapted to changing environmental conditions. Ecologically balanced food systems were undermined: the best agricultural lands were taken for growing coffee, sugar cane, cocoa, and other export crops that were viewed as the means to economic development according to the neoclassical theory of comparative advantage. Private and government funds were invested to develop these cash crops, while food production for the poor majority was neglected.

Colonial cash cropping ravaged the soil, reducing large areas to desert and semidesert. Millions of acres of brush and trees were cleared, robbing the soil of organic replenishment. Export crops such as cotton, peanuts, and tobacco absorbed large amounts of nutrients from the soil. After each year's harvest, the soil was left bare and unprotected leading to accelerated erosion.(2) As more land was put in cash crops, small farmers have been pushed further and further onto marginal land with scarce rainfall, decreasing their ability to produce food. It is this unfortunate, yet avoidable situation that has contributed to drought- induced famine.

Using the best land for export agriculture degraded the environment and impoverished the rural agricultural population, forcing many to work on plantations or crowd into cities seeking employment. Plantation owners and other commercial interests developed a large labor force that could be paid low wages, thus ensuring high profits.

Poor rainfall and other environmental hazards are indeed troublesome for farmers throughout the world. They push people into famine, however, where farmers and pastoralists have been made vulnerable by economic and political structures that impoverish the many while enriching the few.

Myth two: African hunger is caused by overpopulation.

Contrary to popular opinion, hunger is not caused by extreme population density. If it were, we would expect to find widespread hunger in densely populated countries like Japan and the Netherlands and little or no hunger in sparsely populated countries like Senegal and Zaire where, in fact, malnutrition and hunger are widespread.(3)

Africa is not densely populated. Compare Africa's 23.7 persons per square kilometer to Europe's 108.6 and Asia's 122.9.(4) But of all continents, Africa ranks last in the use of irrigation, fertilizers, and tractors.(5) The problem is not a shortage of land but a shortage of money, training, and appropriate technology to develop the land.

Africans use a very small percentage of the globe's resources. For example, Africa's 600 million people (11.3 percent of the world's population) consume just 2.4 percent of the world's commercial energy, while the USA's 260 million people (4.9 percent of the world's population) consume 25.1 percent.(6)

It is true that Africa's population growth rate (3.0% per year) is higher than that of any other continent. It is important, however, for us to understand the real relationship between high population growth rates and hunger. High population growth rates do not cause hunger. Rather, they are both consequences of social inequities that deprive the poor majority--especially women--of the security and economic opportunity necessary for them to choose to have fewer children.

Having large families is a logical response to the conditions of poverty under which most Africans live. On the small family farms that produce most of Africa's food, the most important input is family labor. The high birth rate is partly a response by parents to this need for farm labor.

With the world's highest rate of death for children aged 0-4, Africa's high infant mortality rates lead to an even greater number of births as parents try to compensate.(7) For some mothers, however, the burden of raising another child under difficult circumstances is outweighed by the eventual benefits of another laborer in the family.

Data from around the world shows a close connection between rising living standards and falling birth rates.(8) If African parents were assured their children would survive, they would not need to have so many. If parents could earn enough from their labor, and were assured of support in old age, they would see it as being in their own interest to limit their number of children. And if women were empowered as equal members of society, they would be able to make better use of family planning technology. The key problem is not too many people, it's too much inequality.

Myth three: African governments bear the main responsibility for declining food production.

To lay all the blame on African governments is to imply that they alone control the destiny of their countries. The forces that have institutionalized hunger in Africa are made up of transnational corporations, Western governments, international agencies and African elites as well as the governments. Together they form a coalition whose lifestyles and interests are very different from those of Africa's rural majority.

Over the decades, this coalition has implemented policies that have undermined food crops. Prices paid to farmers have been kept artificially low, thus providing cheap food to people in the cities, which reduced the likelihood of urban unrest and allowed urban employers to pay lower wages, but also stifled incentives for increased food production.(9) Policy makers direct most agricultural assistance to cash crops, mainly benefiting large commercial interests. For example, with the implementation of structural adjustment programs in the 1980s, credit availability for small farmers has decreased dramatically.

The fact that policy making is dominated by men, while most food (80%) is produced by women, also helps explain the low priority given to food crops. Most agricultural training and development assistance is directed towards men, neglecting women farmers. For example, agricultural extension services traditionally have been staffed by men, for men. A recent Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) study found that under 11 percent of agricultural extension workers are women.(10)

But food production can be increased, as developments in Zimbabwe have shown. After years of guerrilla war against a white minority government, Zimbabwe achieved independence in 1980. During the first few years the government of Robert Mugabe raised the price paid for food crops and gave small farmers credit so that they could purchase seeds, fertilizers, and tools. Although they did not reach all the family farmers in need, these programs led to a massive increase in food production. In 1985, despite several years of drought, small farmers not only fed their families, but they marketed twice as much as before, exporting to neighboring countries.(11)

Africa is a diverse continent with over 50 governments ranging from some who are blatantly anti-farmer to those genuinely trying to help the poor majority. But in every nation it can be said that only when the majority gain control of their country's resources will we see an end to policies that systematically impoverish people and leave them vulnerable to natural disasters.

Myth four: The "free market" holds the solution to Africa's food problems.

Most people fail to realize that the world market is Africa's worst enemy. Almost all African countries are dependent on exporting minerals and cash crops. While real prices in the world market for these commodities have declined during the post-World War II period, the prices of manufactured imports from industrialized countries have steadily increased.(12)

Throughout sub-Saharan Africa, low commodity prices have affected markets and local communities that depend on a very narrow range of exports. Most Africans find themselves in what Oxfam calls a "trade trap" where they are forced to produce cash crops for income that is so low, they continue to live their lives in abject poverty.(13)

In Cote d' Ivoire, exports of coffee rose by 26 percent in volume but fell by 21 percent in value between 1988 and 1990.(14) Similarly, in Rwanda, export earnings declined by 50 percent between 1987 and 1991.(15) Recent studies have shown that under the Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), Africa will suffer more than any other geographical region. With the loss of special trading rights with the European Community (EC) and cuts in agricultural subsidies, it is estimated that Africa will lose an additional 3 billion dollars in trade income each year.(16)

The deterioration of Africa's terms of trade means that most African governments have been forced to spend more in the world market than they earn. They have filled this gap by borrowing. By 1992, external debt for sub- Saharan Africa was over $200 billionPa debilitating number that represents 109 percent of its GNP, an 80 percent increase since 1980.(17) The World Bank has concluded that "the bite that debt-service payments take out of a country's capacity to import each year is clearly unsustainable in an environment of low investment and stagnant GDP."(18)

The world financial system is a greater cause of hunger in Africa than is bad weather. Forced to produce foreign-exchange earning crops to pay off unpayable debts, African nations find themselves importing more and more food. Food imports, currently estimated at 10 percent of total imports, place considerable strain on Africa's balance of payments.(19)

Markets allocate food according to wealth, not nutritional need. The few large corporations that control 85 to 90 percent of world grain shipments are concerned with profits, not hunger. It is a cruel irony that 37 percent of world grain consumed goes to feed livestock, while widespread hunger affects millions of Africans.(20) We also find an increasing trend toward the substitution of grains in eastern and southern Africa.

In Sudan, Tanzania and South Africa the production of wheat and rice for wealthy and upper classes has increased relative to the production of staple grains such as sorghum and millet, which are the staples of the poor majority. A similar trend exists in Kenya and Zimbabwe, where there has been a significant increase in the acreage used to grow export crops.(21)

Policy makers claim that economic progress will be achieved if markets are left alone. But the problem is not market intervention per se, it is the way in which institutions and governments intervenePagainst the interests of the poor majority, in favor of the rich and powerful. Markets can be tamed to serve the interests of the majority, but only when governments and institutions are genuinely committed to the poor.

Myth five: U.S. foreign aid is helping Africa's hungry.

The United States has donated large amounts of emergency food to Africa, food that has undoubtedly saved thousands of lives. But while it is essential to help people in need, we must remember that food aid, at best, only treats the symptoms of hunger and poverty, not its causes.

As discussed in Food First books "Aid as Obstacle" and "Betraying the National Interest," most food aid from the U.S. government is not even intended for the hungry.(22) It is purchased by foreign governments using money loaned by the United States. Recipient governments then sell the food on the open market, which means the poor do not benefit.

Food aid can undermine local food production by flooding local markets and depressing food prices. Dumping large quantities of low-priced grain or other commodities can make it impossible for small farmers to compete in the marketplace. In Burkina Faso, heavily subsidized wheat from the EC is sold at about a third lower than the cost of producing and marketing locally grown staples such as sorghum and millet.(23) In addition, pastoralists in the Sahel region have seen their regional livestock trade fall by one-third due to the recent dumping of cheap EC beef on the local market.(24) Food aid can also create dependence on foreign aid or be used by recipient governments to manipulate the poor.

The concentration of U.S. aid on only a few countries shows that its objectives are strategic rather than humanitarian. Of all the U.S. aid to Africa, 60 percent goes to just one country: Egypt. Of U.S. aid to the 53 African countries other than Egypt, nearly one-half, (45 percent) goes to just six countries (South Africa, Mozambique, Ethiopia, Senegal, Liberia and Zambia).(25) These countries contain only 22 percent of Africa's population, and their governments historically did not follow policies favoring the majority, though they did have naval bases, CIA listening posts, and other strategic assets.

U.S. foreign aid has occasionally been eliminated to punish governments that refused to toe the U.S. line. Both Zimbabwe and Mozambique, for example, were cut off from U.S. food aid when their governments criticized U.S foreign policy. While punishing governments that have demonstrated a commitment to helping the poor, Washington has lavished aid on corrupt regimes such as those of Samuel Doe in Liberia, Mobutu Sese Seko in Zaire and Siad Barre in Somalia. In exchange for naval and military bases at the strategic Red Sea port of Berbera, the U.S. granted Somalia millions of dollars in economic and military aid, which in the early 1990s was used by the Barre government to wage war on its own people. This brutality by the U.S.-backed government ignited the civil war that destroyed Somalia as a nation.

Nearly all U.S. foreign aid is directed to repressive elites who have enriched the few while impoverishing the many. They use U.S. aid money to strengthen their hold on power. Given the undemocratic nature of these regimes, U.S. aid is more likely to perpetuate hunger and poverty than eliminate it.

Signs of Hope

Although economic and social conditions in Africa are worse now than twenty years ago, with real incomes at their lowest, and hunger and malnutrition at their highest, we must not lose sight of the positive developments that have taken place in Africa within the past few years. Armed conflict has come to an end in Angola, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Mozambique, opening up new opportunities for growth and development. In South Africa, the demise of apartheid and the inauguration of Nelson Mandela as president also represent hope in a historically oppressive region.

Grassroots organizations such as women's cooperatives, health initiatives and environmental movements have emerged as alternatives to elite coalitions and their failed top-down policies. In the face of formidable domestic obstacles such as limited resources, widespread poverty, government repression, and the international obstacles of trade and structural adjustment programs, these organizations represent hopeful attempts at development from the ground up. It is for this reason we as concerned citizens need to challenge those international institutions and policies that hinder the advancement of grassroots organizations.


Kevin Danaher is Director of Education at Global Exchange in San Francisco, CA, and Abikok Riak is a Research Intern at Food First.


1.Oxfam UK (1993), Africa, Make or Break: Action for Recovery, Oxfam UK, 1.

2. See Chapters 3 and 4 of Richard W. Franke and Barbara H. Chasin, Seeds of Famine: Ecological Destruction and the Development Dilemma in the West African Sahel (Montclair, NJ: Allanheld Osmun, 1980).

3. For a more detailed analysis of the relationship between population growth and hunger, see Frances Moore Lapp and Joseph Collins, World Hunger: Twelve Myths (New York: Grove Press/Food First Books, 1986), Chapter Three. See also Frances Moore Lapp and Rachel Schurman, Taking Population Seriously (San Francisco: Institute for Food and Development Policy, 1990).

4. World Resources Institute, World Resources 1994- 1995, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 284- 285.

5. World Resources 1994-1995, 264-265.

6. World Resources 1994-1995, 334-335.

7. UNICEF, State of the World's Children, 1994 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), 82.

8. Hunger 1995: Causes of Hunger (Silver Springs: Bread for the World, 1994), 63.

9. For details see Robert H. Bates, Markets and States in Tropical Africa: The Political Basis of Agricultural Policies (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981).

10. World Resources 1994-1995, 48-49.

11. Oxfam UK, 29.

12. Coote, Belinda. The Trade Trap: Poverty and the Global Commodity Markets (Oxford: Oxfam, 1992), 8.

13. Ibid., ix.

14. UNICEF 1994, 50-51.

15. Chossudovsky, Michel. IMF-World Bank Policies and the Rwandan Holocaust, Third World Network Features, 1287/95.

16. Ritchie, Mark. GATT Facts: Africa Loses Under GATT, Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, March 1994.

17. Oxfam UK, 13.

18. Ibid.

19. UNDP, Human Development Report 1994 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 155.

20. World Resources 1994-1995, 296.

21. Barkin, David, Rosemary L. Batt and Billie De Walt. Food Crops vs. Feed Crops: Global Substitution of Grains in Production, (Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1990), 73.

22. For a comprehensive overview of U.S. policy toward Africa from WWII to the present see Michael Clough, Free at Last? U.S. Policy Toward Africa and the End of the Cold War. (New York: Council on Foreign Relations Press, 1992). For more global effects of U.S. foreign aid see Frances Moore Lapp, Joseph Collins and David Kinley, Aid As Obstacle: Twenty Questions about our Foreign Aid and the Hungry. (San Francisco: Institute for Food and Development Policy, 1981) and Frances Moore Lapp, Rachel Schurman & Kevin Danaher, Betraying the National Interest, (San Francisco: Institute for Food and Development Policy, 1987).

23. Oxfam, 28-29.

24. Gellen, Karen. "Africans blast European beef dumping," African Farmer, Oct. 1993, 44-45.

25. US AID Summary Tables FY 1992, 13.

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