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The Politics of Rising Food Prices in Africa


In Africa, governments are introducing a number of policies to address food shortages and price increases. In the short term, leaders are working to ensure that the urban poor can afford to feed themselves. Economists say in the long term, African governments must find ways to improve domestic food production. From Washington, William Eagle has the story.

African leaders don’t have to look far to see the perils of angering consumers, many of whom can not afford mounting food costs. In recent months, they’ve taken to the streets in Egypt, Ivory Coast, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Niger, Cameroon, Madagascar and Senegal.

Kenya: Harvests Affected By Political Unrest

Peter Oriare is a Nairobi-based consultant and the director of the firm Strategic Public Relations and Research.

He says the food crisis is affecting Kenya’s politics. He says regional leaders pressed President Mwai Kibaki and his challenger in the December elections, Raila Odinga, to reach a power sharing agreement for a coalition government. The dispute had led to weeks of violence that prevented truckers from transporting food and fuel from Kenya’s ports to neighboring countries.

Oriare also says he’s concerned about the possibility of unrest if the government fails to curb high food prices or resettle 300,000 farmers displaced during the post-election violence.

"Now in Kenya," he says, "poverty and unemployment are so high there are demonstrations, andit could get worse if there is not food across the country."

"It could undermine the leadership of [President Kibaki]," adds Oriari. "If the 300,000 people are not settled, then that is going to undermine the peace process between the various communities in the Rift Valley."

South Africa's Food Inflation: Strengthening the Left

In South Africa, the labor unions are protesting the rise in food prices and are calling for the prosecution of corporate leaders found guilty of price fixing.

The chief labor union, the Congress of South African Trade Unions, wants subsidies for the poor and reductions in the price of bread. It also wants an investigation of the food chain, saying the price farmers receive has no relation to supermarket prices.

Hussein Solomon is the director of the Center for International Political Studies at the University of Pretoria. He says this year, the power within the ruling party, the ANC, has shifted from the pragmatic, free market wing to the left, which includes the unions, the ANC Youth League and the Communist Party.

"After the [recent] ANC political leadership conference, many commentators have pointed out that the left is in the ascendancy…. Having said that, the [question] is: do they understand how a modern economy like South Africa functions and how we slot into the world?"

On the other hand, he says continuing high food prices would bring into question the current government’s free market policies and the effectiveness of the country’s efforts to produce a substantial black middle class.

Solomon says South Africa’s agricultural products provide food for the region and are pushing the country forward. He says the best way to increase food production is by reducing regulations on businesses, which may not be the direction the ANC leadership takes.

The Cost of Food and Land Reform

Some say the drive for more agricultural production will also affect the debate in southern Africa over land reform. In South Africa, Namibia and Zimbabwe, white farmers own much of the best quality land.

Eight years ago Zimbabwe’s government, led by President Robert Mugabe, enacted reforms that took productive land from white commercial farmers and gave it to government supporters and landless blacks. But neither group have the skills needed for modern agriculture, and Zimbabwe, once a breadbasket for southern Africa, is now a food importer, with an inflation rate of over 1,000 percent.

Solomon says there will likely be renewed emphasis in South Africa on the “willing buyer, willing seller” method of land reform rather than violent land takeovers. He says the government should also be prepared to provide extension services to ensure new landowners become commercial, and not subsistence, farmers.

"In South Africa," he says, "I believe there is a genuine attempt to engage in redress. But, the one positive thing that comes out of Zimbabwe is that while there has been a temptation by certain social movements [in South Africa] to replicate the Zimbabwean example, even the erstwhile supporters of Mugabe in South Africa are seeing the damage. We have four million Zimbabweans in South Africa, each with horrific stories about the lack of food. So Zimbabwe is an exemplary lesson of how to not engage in land reform, and where you have an overbearing state trying to over-regulate [business] and destroying the entire economy."

Food Aid and Agricultural Reforms

In Zimbabwe itself, development specialists say any future government will need to cut inflation and enhance food production.

Eddie Cross is a renowned Zimbabwean economist and policy coordinator for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change. He says the country imports up to 80 percent of its basic food needs.

"The government is buying large quantities of food abroad," says Cross. "We get about 600 million US dollars per year in food aid. It’s paid for by foreign donors and arrives here free. We are in fact protected by the foreign aid system from the negative effects of the world [food price inflation], and by the same token our producers do not find it economical to produce food because of the existence of the food aid system. It’s a 'Catch-22' situation: you have to feed people but in feeding them you create dependency."

There are other efforts to increase food production and improve the income of Africa’s farmers by engaging African producers in the world market.

On a continental level, the African Union’s economic program, the New Partnership for Africa's Development, is asking governments to devote 10 percent of their budgets to their agricultural sectors.

And internationally, groups such as the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development are calling for progress with eliminating barriers to world trade.

According to OECD estimates, a 50 percent reduction in tariffs in agriculture and manufactured goods would generate annual worldwide gains of about U.S. $44 billion. Moreover, it estimates that the elimination of all policies that distort the market could add two percent to Africa's yearly economic growth to Africa and to that of the developing world.

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