The Good News about Africa despite the Famine in the Horn
By Dirk Bol
About 10 million traditional pastoralists on marginal soils in the Horn of Africa once again face a famine. The causes: lack of rains and inadequate government policies.
Even though new early warning systems had caused alarm bells to ring, governments in Ethiopia and Kenya remained more or less deaf. Insufficient food reserves were built up in times of plenty supply, and no proper ways of modernizing traditional pastoralism have yet been found or implemented. Roaming around in search of water has become ever more difficult for them now that farmers have settled on large parts of the semi-arid soils in both countries. Conflicts between semi-nomads and settlers are now the order of the day in many parts of the region.
Despite this temporary setback the continent generally is doing fine economically, and therefore, there is no reason to fall back on the usual defeatism when it comes to Africa’s future. Population growth is finally decreasing, even though an average 2.3% p.a. is still on the high side. Children’s participation in education has increased spectacularly in a number of countries and child mortality rates are down everywhere. Only the HIV/AIDS pandemic keeps life expectancy alarmingly low.
With hindsight we might say that the harsh (structural) adjustments during the 1980s forced upon African governments by the international community, led by IMF and the World Bank, proved beneficial. Not only were debts and inflation brought under control once again, but the degree of order brought back in many economies restored a healthy functioning of the market mechanism. That brought about serious economic growth in many countries from 1995 onwards, about 10 years after the initial reforms. Both entrepreneurs and farmers felt encouraged again to invest, with prices becoming incentives once again, after governments stopped interfering in the markets for good and bad (corruption) reasons. Foreign investments from South Africa, after Mandela came to power (1994), followed by those from Asia (Singapore, India, China) and Arab countries nicely complemented domestic efforts. Ever more oil and minerals are being discovered, a lucrative business thanks to high commodity prices.
As a result of this it is fair to say that the lives of around 500 million Africans is slowly improving. The average income in 25 countries at least - including Ethiopia and Kenya - has been growing by 2% and more every year for the last 15 years. There are even signs that the very unequal distribution of income in Africa is somewhat improving, so that even the poor benefit from the economic growth. The share of absolute poor, with incomes below USD 1.25 a day, is now closer to 30% than the 40% where it seemed stuck so long before.
The ongoing financial crisis in the world slowed down the process of economic growth, but did not stop it, a unique experience for the continent that always suffered so much from global crises. Economic management of a country, by its government, seems to be a much more important factor in this process than its location, near the sea or landlocked, or its richness in resources or fertility of its soils. Only war can seriously disrupt this healthy growth process, causing about a third (15) of African nations not to participate (yet) in this as a result of internal conflicts, civil war and even failed states. Somalia, Zimbabwe, Burundi and DRC belong to this group.
Poverty reduction is not only a matter of economic growth or market mechanism. Governments can make a difference, as those with a lot of funding for health and education - often aided by foreign donors - prove. That is amply demonstrated in Botswana, Ethiopia, Benin, Burkina Faso, Tanzania and Rwanda. The later even introduced an affordable health insurance scheme, at a price of USD 30 p.a., thereby visibly saving many lives.
The need for foreign aid will definitely decline as a result of such good performances by the 30 successful countries. But for the time being, rural areas and agriculture might still benefit from some foreign assistance. Better still, however, is for rich countries to do away with its subsidies for its own farmers, as such high amounts - more than all aid to African agriculture - cause unfair competition with African farmers, e.g. in cotton.
Finally, the good economic performance should encourage wealthy Africans to re-invest part of their capital now stored in Swiss banks and often acquired by illegal means (oil) back in their own countries. The amounts involved in this largely exceed the USD 50 billion that the rich countries annually provide to Africa as foreign aid. Even some of the African Diaspora may now be encouraged to return to their country and make a living by providing a useful contribution to its further progress.
*Dirk Bol is with Utrecht (the Netherlands) based Consultants for Development Programmes (CDP) which specialises in technical assistance and advisory services on rural development. The full version of this piece entitled ‘Africa's Take-Off, A long and Winding Road’ can be downloaded from www.cdp-online.nl. Dirk Bol can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org