A Continent Living on Handouts

JONATHAN POWER

June 07, 1991|By JONATHAN POWER

HELSINGOR, DENMARK — War in Africa has been a primary cause and exacerbater of famine. But do not suppose that, because in the last few days the wars in Angola and Ethiopia have been wrapped up, the great hunger stories are over. Africa's agricultural problems are just too severe, its climate too harsh and erratic, its soils too poor, its governments too mismanaged and its population growth too uncontrolled for ready solution.

Here in Hamlet's home town, agricultural ministers from most of the world's countries are holding their annual get-together under the auspices of the United Nations' World Food Council. The report they were given Wednesday morning on the state of agriculture in Africa was the most devastatingly pessimistic document I've seen for a long time. Anyone who was dreaming, like myself, that there are hopeful signs got a rude shock.

Yes, Zimbabwe's peasant smallholders now produce sizable export surpluses year after year. And yes, anti-pest programs sponsored by the International Fund for Agricultural Development have combated the screw worm that threatens African livestock and the mealy bug that was eating its way through the continent's main food staple, cassava. These successes, and others, seem to have made no dent in the macro-statistics.

Over the last 20 years Africa has had the world's highest growth in population and lowest growth in food output. While it's true that the number of poor and hungry is rising in all Third World countries, in Asia the increase -- an extra 10 million since 1970 -- is minuscule compared with the successful feeding of the hundreds of millions of extra mouths that weren't around 20 years ago. In Africa, a much less heavily populated continent, the number of hungry has increased in that time from 92 million to over 140 million today.

But it is the outlook for the future that really startles. Today Africa's food production shortfall is about 8 million tons. Much of it is made up with food aid. By century's end the need will climb, on present projections, to 50 million, and by the year 2020 to an ''inconceivable'' 245 million tons.

Even these are benign estimates. They assume food production grows at 2 percent a year; the recent average is 1.7 percent. To slow the skyrocket of food imports would mean a modern miracle -- increasing African production by 4 percent a year, combined with a sharp decline in fertility rates.

In the rest of the Third World most people are getting more food by the year. In Africa, at least half eat less than they did in 1970. This year, drought has returned with a vengeance to the Sudan and Ethiopia and, indeed, to all the countries bordering the Sahara. The emergency need for food aid is larger than during the great famine years of 1984-1986, when Bob Geldof and Harry Belafonte pushed us to be generous.

Africa is not like Bangladesh with its torrential storms and floods, nor like Guatemala with its earthquakes. Such disasters strike every five or ten years. Africa's is a chronic, daily crisis. Disaster is the melancholy wheel of everyday life, forever turning.

The likelihood of introducing dramatic improvements in African agriculture on a wide-enough scale to make a real impression is slim. Comparison with the Asian ''green revolution'' highlights the difficulties. Irrigation was one of the secrets of Asia's success. But in Africa, dam-based systems have cost astronomical sums and given low returns. Research on yield improvement of crops traditional to Africa is still in its early stages, although there have been some local breakthroughs with hybrid maize and a few export crops. Meanwhile, soil fertility is declining and so it the growth rate in fertilizer use. As for aid programs, to be brutally honest, they have in the main a dismal record of failure. If governments and aid agencies cannot resolve the problem, nature has its own way -- tens of millions of people at worst dying of hunger, at best living on meager handouts from U.N. and Red Cross food trucks. Africa will become a continent-wide Bronx, living on welfare. We've seen it already on our television screens, but in small scale compared with what is to come.

Hamlet-like, we can remain indecisive, discussing the options interminably. Or we can move on the problem immediately, casting aside the multitude of badly coordinated, time-consuming, often competing or duplicating individual efforts.

For the next 20 years we need a High Commission for Africa, running development programs as Gen. Douglas MacArthur ran defeated Japan. In real life this can't happen in a continent so proud of its recent independence. Then African leaders themselves must come up with another way. They must hurry. ''The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune'' give little time.

Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.

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