Why can’t Africa feed itself any more?

Just listened to George Ayittey’s fascinating TED talk on African governance and economic development. He mentions the statistic, which I’ve heard before in the same context that at independence Ghana was richer than South Korea, that when the colonial era ended Africa was a net exporter of food, while now it is dependent on charity and food imports. There are all sorts of strands to this story, and I am far from an expert on such issues. But I wonder whether in considering why this happened (as opposed to what we can do about it) we might be focusing on the wrong issue? I do not know the stats for food production in Africa over the past 50 years, but I do know that the population has exploded. Is the reason that Africa can no longer feed itself primarily because of too many mouths to feed? That is to say, have improving health standards which, I would venture to suggest are probably largely a result of Western aid, led indirectly to food shortages? Should we be holding this situation up as a terrible, gut-wrenching ‘success story’ of modern aid?

I agree with George Ayittey that we should invest more in development at the bottom end, where most poor Africans are to be found, although, as a conservationist, I am not sure that the example he holds up of building bigger fishing boats is the best solution; that one has boom and bust written all over it. (I am also aware of counter-arguments about industrialisation and urbanisation being the key to economic development.) But I wonder whether we miss the point when we lambast African governments for the economic decline over which they have presided. Sure governance was abysmal, but decolonisation happened extremely rapidly in societies where most economic activity was controlled and driven by the colonists. At independence Tanzania famously had only a handful of university graduates; now they number in the tens of thousands. Maybe, in the spirit of all the best tragedies, this was an inevitable tragedy. The post-war era saw such changes in cultural norms that European governments could no longer deny independence to those who requested it, nor even delay it. But such was the state of societal development at that point, perhaps things had to get worse, much, much worse, before they could get better?

In the part of the world I live in, I think things bottomed out a while ago, and life is definitely getting better, sometimes with the help of development aid (e.g. paved roads), sometimes as a result of private sector investment (e.g. mobile telephones), and sometimes even as a result of changes of government policy (e.g. easement of market restrictions). But it’s going to be a long hard slog, and Africa probably won’t be able to feed itself for a while.

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