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Africa Human Development Report 2012: Towards a Food Secure Future
15 May 2012
United Nations Development Programme


Had African governments over the last 30 years met their people's aspirations, this Report would not be necessary. One quarter of the people in sub-Saharan Africa would not be undernourished, and one third of African children would not be stunted. Nor would so many African farmers have to eke out meagre livelihoods on tiny plots of depleted soil. The region would be food secure, and the gap between its human development and that of more successful regions would be closing rapidly.

Chronic food insecurity in sub-Saharan Africa stems from decades of poor governance. Regimes bent on amassing wealth absorbed the region's resources into patrimonial power structures. Self-serving elites, quick to profit from graft and patronage, have stood between leaders and the people, monopolized state revenues and emptied the countryside, but they have provided neither employment nor industry. Across sub-Saharan Africa rural infrastructure has deteriorated, farming has languished, gender and other inequalities have deepened and food systems have stagnated. Smallholder farmers, on whose shoulders the recovery of its agriculture rests, have long been pinned between a rock and hard place. Rebuilding food security starts with liberating them from this predicament and unleashing their potential.

The international community's record in this misfortune hardly shines. Developed countries maintain agricultural subsidies that benefit their rich producers while pushing sub-Saharan Africa's impoverished smallholder farmers to the margins. For many years externally inspired adjustment programmes weakened state capacity and encouraged African governments to repay ballooning debts by diverting resources from food production to cash crop exports. One by one countries fell victim to falling commodity prices and increasingly volatile and costly imports. The indifference of some development partners to sub-Saharan Africa's agriculture sector mirrored government neglect, often leaving food growers at the mercy of aid tied to counterproductive conditions.

It is a harsh paradox that in a world of food surpluses, hunger and malnutrition remain pervasive on a continent with ample agricultural endowments. Fundamental change is imperative. Notwithstanding the last decade's impressive economic growth and the turnaround in some human development indicators, sub-Saharan Africa remains the world's most food insecure region. The spectre of famine, all but gone elsewhere, continues to haunt millions in the region. Yet another famine occurred in Somalia in 2011, and the Sahel is again at risk in 2012.

But history is not destiny. Africans are not fated to starve-provided that governments move decisively to put in place appropriate policies and support mechanisms. Famine, starvation and food insecurity are preventable. The shameful scenes of feeding tents and starving children that have been associated with sub-Saharan Africa for far too long can be eliminated once and for all.

In addition to tackling challenges embedded in the African context, food security strategies will need to respond to major changes in the global food system. New factors are reshaping the way food is produced and consumed: demographic pressures, dwindling natural resources (particularly water and soil nutrients) and a progressive shift towards meat-based diets (which demand large quantities of grain and water) by the new middle classes of emerging countries. International food prices are volatile, driven by surging demand for food and disruptions in its supply, in turn linked to climate change and fluctuating prices of agricultural inputs, such as fertilizer and oil.

These challenges will be magnified by a growing and more affluent population in sub-Saharan Africa. The region will need to produce substantially more food in the next half century to feed its people, while mitigating stresses that agricultural production places on the environment.

Half a century ago, green revolutions in Asia and Latin America ushered in a steady flow of scientific and technological breakthroughs that ultimately conquered famine in those regions. Millions of lives were saved as these changes rolled across Asia. Basket cases became bread baskets. Why should sub-Saharan Africa be different?

Africa has the knowledge, the technology and the means to end hunger and food insecurity. But still missing have been the political will and dedication. Africa must stop begging for food. That is an affront to both its dignity and its potential. If some African countries can acquire and deploy jet fighters, tanks, artillery and other advanced means of destruction, why should they not be able to master agricultural know-how? Why should Africans be unable to afford the technology, tractors, irrigation, seed varieties and training needed to be food secure?

This Report argues that sub-Saharan Africa can extricate itself from pervasive food insecurity by acting on four critical drivers of change: greater agricultural productivity of smallholder farmers; more effective nutrition policies, especially for children; greater community and household resilience to cope with shocks; and wider popular participation and empowerment, especially of women and the rural poor. These drivers of change, by ending the ravages of hunger and malnourishment, will nurture capabilities and conditions for human development. A well-nourished and empowered population, in turn, is more likely to seek education, participate in society and expand its productive and human potential. With the right policies and institutions Africa can sustain this virtuous cycle of higher human development and enhanced food security.

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