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March/April 2011
Vol. 36, No. 2

Africa: Economics of agriculture, food security

Though most African nations have been independent for over 50 years, the legacy of colonial power in many countries creates an environment where some eat extremely well while others starve. Economic strains and rising food prices led to food riots in 2008 and partially were responsible for some of the recent unrest mounted in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and other countries. This article is the first of a series of six articles exploring the many underlying causes of food insecurity in Africa. In future articles we will look at African agriculture and food security vis-à-vis technology, land use, labor, livelihoods, climate change and the impact of war, examining U.S. policies and responses to these challenges.

Prior to the African independence movement following World War II, the purpose of many African economies was to enrich the colonizing country and its citizens. In agriculture, the focus was on export crops like tea, coffee, sugar, cocoa, cotton, rubber and tropical fruits. On plantations African people were either enslaved or put to work for extremely low wages.

In the 1950s, as the economies of Asia, Europe and North America expanded, the demand for natural resources inflated the price of raw materials extracted from Africa. By the end of the colonial era in the 1960s, there was great hope that Africa would be self-sufficient and prosperous. But in many of Africa's newly independent countries, development was patchy at best. Often, African leaders were more closely aligned with the interests of foreign corporations and governments than they were with their own citizens.

By the 1970s, rising oil prices and volatile prices for raw materials strangled fragile African economies. The glut of petro-dollars in northern financial institutions and the consequent marketing of loans to African countries by a variety of creditors initiated a cycle of unsustainable official debt. Much of this debt was illegitimate – loaned, for example, to brutal dictators, to apartheid governments, or for mega-projects that destroyed human communities and the environment. Yet the debt burden fell on following generations, constricting spending on health care, education, environmental protection, infrastructure and other local needs.

Macro-economic conditionalities (initially called structural adjustment programs) attached to new loans and, eventually, to refinancing and ultimately to debt cancellation agreements went way beyond the stabilization of fragile economies, restructuring one after the other to fit an increasingly dominant pattern of neoliberal, free market globalization.

In recent decades many Sub-Saharan African countries became poorer compared to the rest of the world. By 2000, 50 percent of the world's poor people were African. Despite the success of Jubilee campaigns around the world and of other civil society movements that accomplished the cancellation of significant debt to the benefit of many African countries and some re-thinking of attached conditionalities, the imposition of neoliberal macro-economic reforms leading to open markets and free trade was unrelenting.

During this period, four countries led the charge toward increased global market access and expanding international trade. The agenda of the "Quad" (U.S., European Union, Canada and Japan) was to extend the trading system to include trade in services and intellectual property and to reform trade in the sensitive sectors of agriculture and textiles. They pushed their agenda through the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade which eventually gave rise to the World Trade Organization (WTO) that came into being on January 1, 1995.

The United States had launched a massive trade expansion project in the Americas through the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) that was signed in 1992 and entered into force in 1994, but U.S. trade in Africa was limited. To compete with the European Union's much more substantial trade with Africa, the U.S. extended trade preferences to a number of countries (that met the same set of macroeconomic conditions as those tied to new loans and debt cancellation) through the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA). While AGOA initally focused much more on African textiles and cotton, in subsequent years it included other agricultural products. African farmers complained that some of the items Africa could easily trade, like peanuts, were not included because the U.S. wanted to protect its own peanut farmers from competition.

Through AGOA and WTO rules, African countries opened their economies to U.S. agricultural products mostly to the detriment of their own farmers. In 2005, the WTO found the U.S. responsible for illegally "dumping" cotton in world markets (selling well below the cost of production). Though the U.S. was fined and told to change its cotton subsidy policies, agriculture in African cotton producing countries – vital for food security, rural livelihoods, poverty reduction and generating foreign exchange – had been crippled.

In the late 1990s another movement was percolating among farm groups and others in Africa. Calling for a review of TRIPS (trade-related aspects of intellectual property rights) article 27.3 (b) relating to the patenting of life and plant varieties, the Africa group wanted to clarify "that plants and animals as well as the microorganisms and all other living organisms and their parts cannot be patented. And that natural processes that produce plants, animals and other living organisms should also not be patentable." They wanted an option for a national sui generis law to protect innovations of indigenous and local communities so that traditional farming practices (including the right to save and exchange seeds and sell their harvests) could continue.

In 1999 at the WTO ministerial meeting in Seattle, African trade ministers were prepared to advocate for this review of TRIPS article 27.3 (b) to prevent the appropriation of traditional knowledge and maintain African control over plants critical for food security. Their effort was thwarted when the meeting was brought to an abrupt end by popular protests in Seattle's streets and a rebellion by African and other delegates from the global South who denounced the non-transparent "green room" negotiation processes from which their delegations had been excluded.

Also in the 1980s and 1990s, the Organization of African Unity (OAU) shifted its focus from political liberation to economic "development," but a series of pan-African strategies for "development" never got off the ground. In light of these failures, a new breed of African leaders devised plans to move Africa forward. NEPAD (New Partnership for Africa's Development), a merger of two African plans for economic regeneration, was launched "to create Africa anew in the 21st century." NEPAD's objectives were to reduce poverty, put Africa on a "sustainable development" path, halt the marginalization of Africa, and empower women. It was adopted by African Heads of State and the OAU in 2001; ratified by the African Union (AU) in 2002 and remains in force today.

NEPAD's market access focus promotes a model of export-oriented growth which has been criticized heavily by African civil society, including church leaders, for being too closely aligned with the neoliberal, free market "Washington Consensus." NEPAD's program for agricultural development, called the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP), aims to help African countries reach a higher path of economic growth through agriculture-led development.

The United States and other northern countries look favorably on NEPAD and CAADP, since they lock countries into an economic model that favors U.S. companies who want to invest in Africa. For years, the U.S. has worked diligently to shape global trade rules (at the WTO and through bilateral or multilateral agreements) to ensure that the U.S. always has the advantage. The U.S. insists that African countries go through the CAADP process, which is laden with macroeconomic conditions, before receiving U.S. agricultural assistance, including assistance given through the Obama administration's Feed the Future or the World Bank's Global Agriculture and Food Security Program.

In colonial times, the African continent enriched colonizing countries and their citizens through the production of export crops like tea, coffee, sugar, cocoa, cotton, rubber and tropical fruits. In today's global economy, when all the rules weigh heavily in favor of northern countries like the United States, what Africa has to offer, once again, is raw materials and cheap labor. It is hard to believe that (as many in the Obama administration claim) the U.S. is looking out for Africa's best interests when at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, USAID announced a newly-forged a partnership to reduce hunger with 17 of the most anti-competitive, exploitative global corporations (Archer Daniels Midland, BASF, Bunge, Cargill, Coca-Cola, DuPont, General Mills, Kraft Foods, Metro, Monsanto Company, Nestlé, PepsiCo, SABMiller, Syngenta, Unilever, Wal-Mart Stores and Yara International.)


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