Africa Needs its Own Food Security Solution


“Country-owned development” has become a new buzzword in confronting hunger. World Bank President Robert Zoellick used the phrase in an address at the Society for International Development’s World Congress in Washington, D.C. this weekend. It is also the centerpiece of the Feed the Future initiative, the Obama administration’s comprehensive plan for fighting hunger.

The notion of developing country ownership over agricultural development provides a key opportunity to focus on context-specific approaches for achieving food security. The Comprehensive African Agriculture Development Program (CAADP) is a more effective vehicle for focusing on local circumstances than a one-size-fits-all approach that neglects to consider a country's economic and political circumstances.

Through CAADP, established in 2003, African governments have pledged to increase spending on agriculture by at least 10% of their budgets. Indeed, CAADP’s focus areas — land and water management, market access, food supply and hunger, and agricultural research — require attention to local areas, especially because the threat of climate change will impact areas in different ways.

History shows the perils of pursuing a one-size-fits-all approach to agricultural development. 

The World Bank's structural adjustment programs, for example, forced the Ethiopian government to remove investment in agriculture as a condition for receiving loans. Yet this policy had a disastrous impact  in 2003, as Roger Thurow and Scott Kilman write in Enough: Why the World's Poorest Starve in an Age of Plenty. The private sector was simply too underdeveloped to fill the void left by the government. No market was in place to absorb the huge crop yields experienced in 2002, driving prices so low that farmers could no longer afford to continue producing. Additionally, the lack of infrastructure made it impossible to transport crops to less productive parts of the country. The famine was truly a paradox: increased productivity was the root cause of starvation.

The problem with structural adjustment is that it failed to account for individual countries’ political and economic circumstances. Yet now a consensus has emerged on the need for government investment in agriculture. According to United Nations Senior Economic Advisor Anis Chowdhury, African leaders have been saying, "The state has a large role to play [in agriculture], and we cannot rely on markets, as structural adjustment told us to do."

The 1960's Green Revolution’s overemphasis on technology and its inequitable outcome in India is a cautionary tale, and I think country-owned development has the potential to avoid this pitfall in Africa.

The Green Revolution averted famine in India. But its packaging of technologies — high-yield crops, fertilizer, and irrigation — made it accessible only to large farmers and those with irrigation. Thus rain-fed regions were largely excluded. And even in the most productive areas, a narrow focus on crop yields served to externalize environmental impacts — and that explains why farms in the Punjab province, arguably the greatest beneficiaries of Green Revolution technology, have seen their productivity severely diminish.

A key lesson from the Green Revolution is that agricultural development must be inclusive and attentive to environmental sustainability. Agriculture is not just about crop yields; rather, it is a system that includes people and natural resources.

Despite the promise of country-owned development, I am somewhat concerned by the thinking of donor countries. At the Feed the Future Research Forum last month, U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Rajiv Shah emphasized the need for transformative ideas to make Feed the Future a success. I worry that he means technological solutions, which risks running into the same problems seen in the Green Revolution.

Although the World Bank has largely replaced structural adjustment programs with Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers, some critics claim that this new approach may just be another way for the Bank to cling to market-driven neoliberal economic development.

Country-owned development is a useful paradigm for approaching food security issues. It’s vitally important that donor countries and international institutions fully buy into this idea so that their development agendas are aligned with the interests of their intended beneficiaries.

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