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May 16, 2012
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Africa HDR cover-webA guest post from Ricardo Fuentes-Nieva (right), who is taking over from me as head of research at Oxfam in a Ricardo Fuentes-Nievacouple of weeks, (I’m not leaving, just changing jobs within Oxfam – more on that later).

Over the past two years, I spent most of my time working on the first Africa Human Development Report (left), which was launched yesterday in Nairobi. It was about time for the first African HDR, especially given recent famine in the Horn and repeated threats of humanitarian food crises in the Sahel. The report focuses on food security – for a large number of Africans (some 220 million), hunger is a daily threat – and often one with permanent consequences.

The premise of the Africa HDR is simple: food security, through better nutrition, can improve education, health, productivity, and other important social and economic factors that allow people to have a good life (see figure).

Fuentes 1In contrast, malnutrition can be a long lasting burden:

“The perverse dynamic between food insecurity and poor education, bad health and poverty can last generations. Hungry children with weakened immune systems die prematurely from communicable diseases such as dysentery, malaria and respiratory infections that are ordinarily preventable and treatable. They start school late, learn less and drop out early. Malnourished mothers are at greater risk of dying in childbirth and of delivering low-birthweight babies who fail to survive infancy. Undernourished babies who make it through infancy often suffer stunting that cripples and shortens their lives. As adults they are likely to give birth to another generation of low-birthweight babies, perpetuating the vicious cycle of low human development and destitution.”  

Recent evidence reveals a jarring paradox in Africa. Several countries have been progressing very rapidly in the last years – between 2004 and 2008, African economies grew on average 6.5% annually; child mortality is decreasing; school enrollment is improving; and the Human Development Index (a composite measure of health, education, and income) has risen faster than anywhere else since 2000. Yet Sub-Saharan Africa has not been able to turn improvements in human development into better nutrition indicators – especially compared to Asia’s progress in the last two decades. In sub-Saharan Africa the number of malnourished children increased by 55 million in the last 10 years. 

Fuentes 2The stubborn persistence of hunger in sub-Saharan Africa is partly the result of a brutal neglect of the rural sector for decades, which led to widespread rural poverty, low agricultural yields, poor infrastructure, and limited basic services in rural areas:

– 93% of the arable land is rain-fed.
– African farmers use less than 20 kgs of fertilizer per hectare of arable land, compared to nearly 350 kgs in Asia.
– Since the early 1960s, production of cereals per capita has fallen 13% — the only region to suffer a decline. Today, cereal production in Africa is around 150 kgs per capita; in Latin America it is close to 300 kgs, and in Asia more than 350 kgs.
– Only 30% of Africa’s rural population lives within 2 kilometres of a road. In South Asia, 58% do.

This policy bias reinforced a vicious circle of high levels of inequality, skewed control over resources, and access to opportunities against certain groups – for instance, women have less ability to own and inherit land (figure). As the African Progress Panel Report (launched last week) mentions, the new wealth is not creating the necessary employment or reaching marginalized groups. Add to that the detrimental effects of some international practices – including the lingering effects of structural adjustment, lavish northern agricultural subsidies, the production of bio-fuels, and neglect of agriculture in official development assistance.

Fuentes 3African governments face important policy decisions, mostly on how to transform the recent economic growth and advances in other development indicators into long-term opportunities. The report focuses on four areas of intervention: increase agricultural productivity, strengthen nutrition policies, build resilience, and empower marginalized groups. 

These are interventions that each African country will need to weigh against other national priorities. There is evidence that African people recognize the attempts that governments make to improve access to food. And they also notice when they don’t: about 60% of respondents on the 2009 Gallup World Poll special issue on food security in Africa disagreed with the statement: “The government of this country is doing enough to help people get food”.

Creating better institutions and investing more resources are part of the solution. But any real improvement in the food security situation of African societies will need to make sure that all groups participate actively in the decision-making process. Solving the food security conundrum in Africa requires strong public action. The role of the agricultural sector in development and poverty reduction has been explored at length. But the role of nutrition, social protection, and civic participation has not been duly recognized. Active citizens can play a critical role in ensuring that governments are held accountable and that any policy related to food is participatory and equitable (a very important issue given the recent spate of land grabs).

Too often in Africa (as well as other developing regions), governing elites do not reflect the public interest in their actions and policies. Issues of governance, agency, and democracy might seem unimportant for food security but, increasingly, we have learned that hunger and starvation are closely related to politics and political economy. This is why empowerment and resilience are important. Access to information, roads, and well-designed social programs allow people to make better decisions and better participate in markets and societies. The power structures that keep certain groups from accessing land or that bias public investment towards leaders’ constituencies must be clearly identified – and African governments, civil society, and other stakeholders will need to alter these power relations and give everyone a fair chance to avoid the perils of hunger and its negative consequences for human development.

And here’s the 6 minute launch video


  1. Land grabs for oil and mining is a major problem, yet nobody is highlighting seems to be highlighting it. Now the Chinese are doing what the West have been doing for years. Very sad indeed.

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