Speakers and participants at an international food security conference that concluded in Uganda last weekend had much to say about how global trade and aid policies hurt the availability of food in Africa. But they also looked at how their own governments and societies are failing to ensure that everyone has regular access to nutritious food. Many of the food security experts attending the International Food Policy Research Institute's conference had harsh words for African governments and societies. They said Africans themselves are at least as much to blame for the continent's food security problems as are international economic policies.
They said bad or non-existent development policies, wars, and what they call a 'dependency syndrome' brought about by years of foreign food aid are among the factors that prevent millions of Africans from having consistent access to enough nutritious food.
The executive director of the National Nutrition Agency in Gambia, Isatou Jallow, says it is time for the continent to look inward to assess and solve its problem.
"Years ago, I read a book entitled How Europe Underdeveloped Africa," she said. "But, today, now, years later, I want us all to focus on how the lack of adequate food, the lack of adequate health services, inadequate caring practices, and an unsanitary environment combined is underdeveloping Africa today."
Ms. Jallow says, although governments are investing in agricultural productivity and poverty reduction, they are failing to integrate their development initiatives with measures to increase food security and nutrition.
She says this results in situations where malnourished children are trying to learn in school, or farmers made weak by hunger are trying to cultivate their land.
The conference in Uganda brought together food security experts for three days to discuss why 200 million Africans are malnourished, and what to do about it.
Almost all speakers at the conference called for governments to increase investments in agriculture, rural infrastructure and development, education, and water.
But in many countries, ongoing wars are preventing such efforts.
The Southern and Eastern Africa representative of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, Victoria Sekitoleko, says conflict accounts for half of Africa's food insecurity.
"During the 80s, about 15 percent of food insecurity was caused by human conflict," she said. "Currently, about 50 percent of food insecurity is caused by human conflict. So in other words, it is self-inflicted."
Meanwhile, Ms. Sekitoleko says, there has been much talk and no action from heads of state, government ministers, and others attending scores of meetings and conferences designed to increase food and nutrition security in Africa.
Another contentious area is foreign food aid. Several experts at the Kampala conference told VOA that while food aid has its place as a temporary measure, they believe many Africans have misunderstood and abused that concept.
The Ugandan country director of the aid agency Hunger Project, Sarah Ndoboli, says food aid is being distributed in northern Uganda, where people are going hungry because of ongoing attacks by a rebel group. But, she says, others in peaceful, agriculturally-productive areas of Uganda continue to ask for food aid, too.
"But, to the safe areas, we discourage aid," Ms. Ndoboli. "Aid makes people lazy, it makes them dependent, and they will not work. And all the time they will say, 'Oh, somebody who came will bring again another aid'."
Victoria Sekitoleko of the United Nations agrees, and says governments often ask for food aid without determining whether they really need it, or how free food forces their farmers to sell their produce at throwaway prices to be able to compete.
"OK, World Food Program gets in there," said Ms. Sekitoleko. "Then halfway through the crisis, the same people start complaining that World Food Program is here giving out free food."
Ms. Sekitoleko also blasts governments for not taking seriously early warning systems that predict droughts, floods and other events that reduce the food supply. She says if governments looked ahead more effectively, they could either figure out how to draw from their own reserves to avert disaster, or, when necessary, ask the United Nations for help in time for it to arrive when it is needed.
But Ugandan farmer Chebet Maikut says in his country there are no reserves to use.
"If we had problems of erratic weather, Uganda cannot feed their own population, we do not have any food reserves," he said.
Mr. Maikut says in addition to ensuring people have enough food to eat in bad times, building food reserves would boost local farmers' incomes and incentives because the government would buy their surplus crops in good years.