The UN Development Programme (UNDP) launched its first Africa Human Development Report today, stressing food security as a means to a better quality of life for all.

The argument is straightforward: Most people in Africa depend on agriculture, and better nutrition is good for human development. More food production means more food and income in people’s pockets, which has spin-offs which are beneficial for health and education.

The report is not another exhortation to farmers to grow more food. Pedro Conceicao, chief economist with the UNDP Regional Bureau for Africa, explained that exclusively looking at linkages between small-scale farmers and agriculture or gender empowerment and agriculture were “piecemeal approaches” and not helpful. “We have to move beyond silver bullet obsessions [such as agricultural subsidies] or attention-grabbing headlines.”

He reasoned that high economic growth rates in Africa had not necessarily resulted in a reduction in poverty and food insecurity – which points to accessibility to food and purchasing power as key factors. The report emphasizes “empowerment” and participation as important levers for change.

It argues that countries need to implement a more strategic vision of food security. An approach to emulate would be what Ethiopia had done to beef up its agriculture sector by setting up a separate Agricultural Transformation Agency (ATA) [ ] right next to the prime minister’s office. It is modelled on similar initiatives in Asia which helped accelerate economic growth in South Korea and Malaysia, for instance. ATA addresses bottlenecks in areas such as soil management, research and extension services.

The report calls for new approaches covering multiple sectors – from rural infrastructure to health services, to new forms of social protection and empowering local communities. It calls for action in four critical areas:

1. Increasing agricultural production: It acknowledges that boosting production would be integral to any approach to becoming food secure, and calls for investment in research, infrastructure and inputs and a Green Revolution in Africa;

2. More effective nutrition: Develop coordinated interventions which boost nutrition while expanding access to health services, education, sanitation, and clean water;

3. Building resilience: Investment in crop insurance, employment guarantee schemes, and cash transfers to shield people from risks and make them less vulnerable to shocks;

4. Empowerment and social justice: Gender empowerment, access to land, technology and information are important to make people food secure.

IRIN interviewed two leading experts on the issues.

Steven Wiggins, research fellow with the UK’s Overseas Development Institute, who has been studying agriculture and rural development in Africa since 1972:

Africa is not one unitary entity: “There are 56 countries in Africa… When Africa is considered as a single unit, there is a great danger that it is compared to other similar units, above all Asia, leading to analyses that suggest that if only Africa were more like Asia, then things would improve. Well, I’m not sure that Botswana has very much to learn from, say, Afghanistan, thank you very much. Hyperbole aside, the point is this: in Africa we have several, if not many, cases of admirable progress in food and nutrition security, but we overlook this.”

Real progress takes time: “A longstanding issue in African policy debates is the search not only for growth, but for growth that is `transformative’. Even when an African economy grows, the pessimists say `yes, but where is the transformation?’ usually noting that in Asia growth is transformative. Well, yes, where that has apparently happened in Asia… it is the result of 30 or 40 years of sustained progress. Yet damning judgments are made about African countries after less than 10 years of sustained and high economic growth."

Too complicated and demanding: It would have been better had it [the overview [of the report] stuck to a few fundamental propositions that are well supported by the evidence, namely: smallholder development plus primary health plus clean water will almost always reduce child malnutrition. Yes, let’s add girls in secondary school to the list: that will strengthen these links. But it’s that simple.

Peter Gubbels, the West Africa co-coordinator for Groundswell International, a global partnership of local farming communities, has 30 years of experience in rural development, including 20 years living and working in West Africa. He is based in Ghana. He says:

Move beyond the Green Revolution: “The report… seems to embrace the Green Revolution approach to agricultural improvement, citing… the results… in Asia, and seeking to now apply those lessons to Africa. The report suggests implicitly, that one reason Africa still has hunger is because Africa has not benefited from `science-based, input-intensive’ support. This is highly misleading. There have been many efforts to promote Green Revolution in Africa. Almost all have failed.”

Missing bits: “There is no mention of Conservation Agriculture, or of the Brown Revolution [to promote soil fertility and conserve water].”

Under-funding in agricultural research: “This is true but is also misleading. There has been a great amount of funding in the CGIAR [Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research] system in Africa, including IITA [International Institute of Tropical Agriculture] in Nigeria, from the 1970s onwards. One reason donors reduced funding in the 1990s was because it was not generating good production results.

“But this report seems to assume that investing in new seeds, fertilizers, tractors, irrigation and training is what is needed… And how many very poor small-scale farmers can afford tractors?”

Understanding resilience: “Equally disturbing is the suggestion that long-term resilience measures can enable risk averse, poor small-scale farmers to adopt riskier, but more productive, agricultural technologies. This is twisting my understanding of resilience. The aim is to reduce (or at least manage risk), using low external inputs and local ecological systems, not to increase risk by creating dependence on external expensive inputs (insurance, etc) for poor, vulnerable farm families working in marginal conditions. The way forward would be to develop crops and technologies that both increase food production and reduce risk by conservation agricultural techniques.”

"Subsuming” nutrition into food security: “There is not just food insecurity in Africa. There is both food insecurity and nutrition insecurity. Currently in the Sahel, there is both a food crisis and a nutrition crisis. They may be linked, but the causes are quite different, and the solutions that are [rooted] in food security are almost always inadequate.

“Just as we need to change the strong association of agriculture with food security, we also need to move nutrition out of the confines of food security. There is still a very strong tendency to believe that food aid, and increasing food production, solves most of malnutrition. It does not. It only helps prevent major spikes in the already existing emergency level of chronic and acute malnutrition.”

Controversial issues side-stepped: “The report also almost completely sidesteps… genetically modified seeds… the role of agribusiness in land-grabbing, control of seeds, pushing pesticides and herbicides.”


* This article by IRIN/Puls-news first appeared on May 2, 2012 on IRIN (the humanitarian news and analysis service of the UN-OCHA), with the title ‘Food: Power to the people!’. Items from IRIN are published in this blog with a written permission. Yet, this doesn’t necessarily indicate an endorsement of the claims therein.

Check the Agriculture archive or the Hunger archive for related posts.

Daniel Berhane

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