Why Africa depends on handouts

by Samah El-Shahat

http://english.aljazeera.net/, 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 by others.

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 from overseas.

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 Africa's agriculture.

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.


Open markets

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 'No'.

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.

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