Response to the Horn of Africa’s Food Crisis

The situation in the Horn of Africa has the potential to be the greatest humanitarian crisis of our generation. The UN estimates that some 10 million people in the region are starving or on the brink of food insecurity due to drought and armed conflict.

Today the World Food Programme, UN Food and Agriculture Organization, and Oxfam issued a joint statement detailing their “Action Plan to address the root causes of food insecurity to bring resiliency to a region that has suffered from protracted crises for nearly three decades.”

In their plan they call for:

Emergency and Sustainable Food Assistance – Full funding of emergency requirements to stop the current hunger and malnutrition from accelerating and support of safety net programs, such as school feeding and local purchase and P4P initiatives.

Small farmer support – Immediate support to national food security plans to ensure that countries support the poorest farmers with essential assistance such as tools, seeds, fertilizers, food-based nutrition and the knowledge needed to boost agricultural production and sustain rural livelihoods.

Proactive policy and risk reduction and investment – Supporting policies and investments that address core challenges such as climate change adaptation, preparedness and disaster risk reduction and management, rural livelihoods, productive infrastructure, production and marketing, institutions and governance, conflict resolution, pastoralist issues and access to essential health and education.

While this sounds good, there are some systematic issues that limit the ability of their plan to break the cycle of starvation in the region.

Locally sourced food is the key to feeding those in need, yet a majority of food assistance distributed in the region is from American and European sources. The current local purchase targets that are in place, while helpful, are still not enough when compared to Western commodities distributed in the region. Africa has enough food to feed itself, and the dumping of Western commodities in the region drives down local prices and cuts into the narrow profits of local farmers further perpetuating the cycle of poverty and food insecurity.

US commodities also cost more and take longer to reach those in need than locally sourced commodities. US Government is even critical of their food programs noting that “food aid purchased and shipped from the U.S. cost 29% to 34% more than if procured locally, and food aid deliveries averaged between 106 and 112 days longer to deliver than locally produced food aid.” Even after the US responds to this crisis, millions of starving people will have to wait three to four months to receive any aid, a period of time that will mean certain death to those already starving.

The money that is used for shipping commodities overseas can be put to better use by transporting commodities from regional sources that have seen agricultural success. Roughly 40% of all food grown in Africa never makes it onto a plate because of poor transportation, lack of access to markets and inadequate storage opportunities. Food purchased from local sources would be distributed more quickly than imported food, thereby halting the crisis before it gets worse. Also, the added investment in regional farmers will promote strong local markets that will be able to sustain themselves as droughts and other crises subside.

Supporting small farmers is by far the most effective way to end poverty. Many NGOs have engaged in small shareholder support and have been incredibly successful with promoting the use of fertilizer, hybrid seeds, and modern tools. However, this simply is not enough. The US and EU have harsh restrictions barring developing countries from subsidizing their own farmers. Countries that wish to receive aid from the US cannot legally subsidize their farmers. Not only is this oppressive, but it is quite hypocritical. The US spends $260 billion on crop subsidies and price supports (five times as much as global aid to poor countries) while preventing developing countries from participating in the same activities.

We need to invest in small farmers beyond levels that allow them to simply survive. We need to reverse oppressive policies that prohibit large-scale investment in farmers in developing nations and open up the global food markets to competition from farmers in developing countries.

Want to learn more? I highly encourage anyone interested in the global food crisis to read Enough. The world has more than enough food to feed her people, but a realignment of values and politics need to happen before millions more starve to death unnecessarily.

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About David Stupay

I live in Tanzania where I serve as the executive director for Global Family Resue. I also push the limits of telecommuting by serving as the director of finance and operations for Esperanza Community Services in Chicago while traversing the Tanzanian bush.
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