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African food crisis will worsen without more investment, experts say

WASHINGTON—This summer's food shortage in West Africa has sent the humanitarian community into crisis mode, with the United Nations appealing for $71 million in emergency funds and aid workers rushing to feed millions threatened by starvation.

But experts say that aid will have virtually no long-term impact on Africa's chronic hunger problem. They predict that the number of hungry Africans will grow over the next 20 years unless local governments and international donors change their spending priorities.

A report this month by the International Food Policy Research Institute predicted that the number of malnourished children in countries south of the Sahara Desert in Africa would rise from 32.7 million to 38.3 million by 2025 without a dramatic change in policies.

At the same time, drought and desertification are decreasing the amount of farmable African land, and farming techniques remain primitive. Farm productivity has declined by 5 percent per capita over the last 20 years.

Experts say it doesn't have to be that way. The same report that predicts growing hunger in sub-Saharan Africa notes that in developing countries in West Asia and North Africa, the number of hungry children is expected to decline by 2.3 million in the next 20 years. The British advocacy group Practical Action reaches a similar conclusion: While farm productivity has declined in Africa over the past two decades, it's risen by 40 percent per capita in other developing countries.

Reversing Africa's continued slump into hunger will require long-term investment in rural economies—including developing better soil, building irrigation systems, planting hardier crops that can survive in Africa's harsh climates, constructing new roads and improving sanitation—something donor countries, which give more aid for short-term emergencies than for long-term agricultural development, seem unwilling to do.

"Crises like Niger get the attention of the international community," said Mark Rosegrant, the lead author of the research institute's report, referring to the West African nation hit hardest by the summer food crisis. "But the attention doesn't stay long enough to do the hard, tough work of getting these countries above the line."

The U.S. government, the leading donor in Africa, sends the vast majority of its aid in the form of food, including $48 million in non-emergency food to Niger over the past four years. U.S.-backed charity groups use much of this food to pay for minor development projects, such as pasture improvement and water conservation, through food-for-work programs.

This year, nonfood U.S. aid has included $10 million for locust eradication in the Sahel region—the narrow band south of the Sahara of which Niger is a part—and $500,000 in seeds for Niger's farmers to plant in May in anticipation of the rainy season.

"I think we do our best to assess what is needed at the appropriate time, not to the exclusion of any one approach," says Kevin Sheridan, a spokesman for the U.S. Agency for International Development. "Africa's long-term sustainability is the U.S. government's ultimate goal."

Jeffrey Sachs, a Columbia University economist and head of the United Nations' anti-poverty Millennium Project, said wealthy countries such as the United States should send more direct aid to farmers, in the form of fertilizer, hybrid seed varieties, pest-resistant crops and assistance in developing basic irrigation. Investments in infrastructure such as roads could help move goods faster and bolster rural social networks, providing farmers with a safety net.

"Dollar for dollar, this money could go 10 times farther" than food aid, Sachs said. "This continent could grow a lot more food if it were helped."

For their part, many African countries, trying to promote economic growth, have devoted more agricultural spending to export crops such as coffee over the past 20 years than to helping small-scale farmers grow food that will be consumed locally.

"It's not to say that there's not a need for export-oriented agriculture," said Andrew Scott, the policy director for Practical Action, a nonprofit group that works to reduce poverty. "But if you're aiming at poverty reduction, you need to be more targeted on the needs and priorities of small farmers."

There's a growing consensus among African countries and donor nations that small farmers need help. The Commission for Africa, a panel that British Prime Minister Tony Blair formed to study African growth, has recommended a 50 percent increase in funding for small-scale irrigation projects and other agricultural infrastructure by 2010.

African governments themselves have said they'll boost spending on small-scale agriculture to as much as 10 percent of their annual budgets under a comprehensive, continent-wide development program.

The decision by the Group of Eight nations last month to relieve the debts of 14 of Africa's poorest countries, combined with a pledge to double aid to the continent to $50 billion annually by 2010, means that African countries could have more money to spend on domestic projects.

If they spent an additional $4.7 billion a year on aid to small farmers, the number of malnourished children could drop below 10 million by 2025, according to the research institute's report.

"There are promising signs; the pledges are in place," Rosegrant said. "It's time to actually get hard plans to get that money out and prioritized correctly."

The challenges are huge. One-third of Africa's people are malnourished, according to World Bank figures. Its poorest countries are perpetually short of food, vulnerable to natural calamities and price shocks, and dependent on emergency aid when food crises occur.

Niger, where 3.6 million people might not have enough to eat this year, according to the United Nations, is a perfect case in point. The country, landlocked and straddling the Sahara Desert, is notoriously inhospitable to agriculture. Only 15 percent of its land is considered arable, and there's almost no irrigation.

Still, 82 percent of its 11.5 million people farm or raise cattle. They toil away with stone-age implements and cultivate thin pastures that are totally dependent on rainfall.

In such an environment, Rosegrant said, "Niger, in any given year, is right at that line between barely getting by and having massive starvation and hunger."

This year, after a locust infestation ate into cattle pastures, the price of livestock plummeted. At the same time, the always-volatile price of cereals—a staple food—rose unexpectedly. With millions of rural people living at subsistence levels, basic foods became unaffordable. The United Nations has begun an emergency food-aid mission that it says will cost at least $57.6 million.

But long after the mission is over, experts said, countries such as Niger will still struggle with food shortages unless the root causes of hunger are addressed.

Richard China, the chief of humanitarian policy for the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization, said emergency relief must be balanced with long-term improvements.

"Serious relief needs have to be met, but at the same time additional resources are required to ensure that farmers become more self-reliant," China said. "These are good farmers. They've survived in a very difficult environment for generations and have evolved a way of surviving. ...

"But because these are chronically food-insecure people, if we can make sure there are safety nets in bad years, it will bolster people's resilience."

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): AFRICA-HUNGER

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050819 AFRICA FAMINE

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