Why Africa depends on handouts
by Samah El-Shahat
July 16, 2009
Barack Obama, the charismatic US president,
whom I like and much respect, came to Africa bearing a message
and a gift. Both spoke of Africa's need for self-determination.
This was part of his message: "Governments
that respect the will of their own people are more prosperous,
more stable and more successful than governments that do not ...
This is about more than holding elections - it's also about what
happens between them.
"Repression takes many forms, and
too many nations are plagued by problems that condemn their people
to poverty. No person wants to live in a society where the rule
of law gives way to the rule of brutality and bribery.
"That is not democracy, it is tyranny,
and now is the time for it to end."
This touched a deep and profound nerve
within me. I am a child of Africa. I saw my parents - both journalists
and broadcasters - suffer repression at the hands of those in
power, because they dared speak their minds.
Both were imbued with the spirit of Nkrumah
and Kenyatta - key pan-African nationalist figures that Obama
made reference to in his speech - who believed and dreamt that
a better day lay ahead for Africa and her children.
Instead, my parents were sentenced to
a cruel exile. I was born into exile and my parents' broken dream,
which soon became Africa's as well.
So when it comes to Africa cleaning up
its own "governance" issues - Obama will never get a
contradictory whimper out of me.
But it is the second offering - the gift
that Obama brought to Ghana - which I take great exception to,
because it casts a shadow over, in fact paralyses, talk of self-determination.
People cannot achieve self-determination,
if their most basic human right - food - is controlled and determined
Obama's gift was the $20 billion agreed
last week for financing food security at the G8 L'Aquila meeting.
No more handouts?
This marks a pronounced shift in policy
toward food and Africa. Africans, we are told, will now be helped
to farm their way out of hunger, rather than rely on handouts
And Obama's message underscored this:
"I have pledged substantial increases in our foreign assistance,
which is in Africa's interest and America's. But the true sign
of success is not whether we are a source of aid that helps people
scrape by - it is whether we are partners in building the capacity
for transformational change."
This is where I think Obama got his wires
crossed or confused. Not because I think his message is wrong;
I think the message is to be lauded.
The problem is how he aims to achieve
Africa's "transformational" change which, if anything,
is contradictory to his spoken intentions.
I agree with Obama that governance, democracy
and good policies are crucial for Africa's renaissance. But unless
America, and in particular northern countries, change their policies
toward African agriculture, then the continent will always just
get by, if that!
"Food security" will never lead
to African food sovereignty and independence until Europe and
America do something about their own agricultural subsidies, which
they pour on their own farmers.
These subsidies out-compete and ravage
For example, Martin Khor, executive director
of the southern world-oriented think tank the South Centre, found
that currently 57 per cent of US rice farms would not have covered
their costs if they did not receive subsidies.
Khor also says that, between 2002-2003,
rice exports were 34 per cent below the cost of producing and
milling the rice. Is it any wonder that even Ghana's farmers couldn't
compete with imported American rice which has been artificially
cheapened because of subsidies?
Ghana was single-handedly picked out by
Obama as being a shining light of "good governance"
in Africa. It's a shame he never mentioned what American farm
subsidies did to Ghana's farmers.
Moreover, it is highly unlikely food subsidies
will be resolved in the near future as it is these very subsidies
that have led to the repeated collapse of the Doha trade round
during the last eight years.
But, even if we were to suppose the subsidies
issue could be dealt with, will America and Europe open their
doors to African agricultural produce? The answer is a resounding
As William Rhodes, senior vice-chairman
of Citigroup, writes in the Financial Times: "This new initiative
[food security] will fail unless the leading industrial countries
open their own markets to a considerably greater degree to food
imports from the developing world. Right now there is scant indication
that the G8 powers are willing to do this."
Let's also, while we are it, ask ourselves
another question. Just how did Africa become so seriously dependent
on food handouts?
Yes, of course poor governance, poor leadership
and wars contributed to this. But Obama forgot to mention in his
Ghana speech a more important reason behind Africa's dependence
on food handouts: International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World
Bank adjustment policies.
These policies uprooted the agricultural
infrastructure that Africa had in place.
IMF policies dismantled marketing boards,
abolished guaranteed prices for farmers, removed subsidies on
fertilisers and machines and reduced food product tariffs to such
a low level that American and European farmers were able to flood
the market with their subsidised produce.
That was the real killer blow to African
agriculture. And I did not hear Obama apologise for that mistaken
and outright destructive "governance".
And I fear that, until northern countries
put their own house in order in terms of changing the policies
applied to their farmers - Africa's food dependence will continue,
and it will always be blamed on Africa's lack of good governance.
Samah El-Shahat also presents Al Jazeera's
People & Power programme.