The focus of US agricultural assistance to Africa has changed. In the past, it was directed toward emergency humanitarian aid. Now it focuses on reducing hunger and poverty through long-term development.
“All African governments have been seriously affected by the global economic and food crises, but in different ways,” says Abdoulaye Diop, former ambassador of Mali to the United States.
Diop is the vice chair of the board for the Partnership to Cut Hunger and Poverty in Africa, which promotes public and private U.S. support for the continent.
“Because we have least-developed countries, like Mali, you have middle-income countries like Nigeria, South Africa; and you also have some oil-producing countries,” he says, “the situation is quite different country by country.”
Mali imports most of its food and earns little from exports. The government cannot afford to offer much help, increasing the chances that the country will not be able to meet the requirements of the Millennium Development Goals, a U.N. program designed to cut poverty and hunger in half by the year 2015, says Diop.
Another African country, Malawi, is less affected because its farmers are net exporters of food, so the government has more tax revenue. Mali, he says, does have a recovery plan but right now needs support for agricultural policies, employment opportunities and infrastructure.
“We have already in place a strong initiative that we call the rice initiative, to double rice production, “which is the main [staple] consumed by Malians,” says Diop.
A good start, but more is needed
“But what we need is more assistance to help us to provide the farmer with the subsidies, with agricultural equipment, to organize the marketing process.”
Mali needs this kind of assistance, he says, to address the food needs of its own population, while also exporting to neighboring countries.
But Diop says in what he calls a “country driven” approach, Mali needs to be a full partner.
“The donor countries should provide financial resources to make sure there is enough accountability,” he says, “but the country and local governments should have the responsibility [for setting priorities], to exactly what is important.”
“If it’s agriculture development, what are the many important issues? Is it infrastructure? Is it the human capacity building? Is it the training? So the country-driven approach is critical for us.”
African countries with democratic governments make better use of aid than those with authoritarian governments, says the former ambassador. He says in a democracy more people have a stake in the results -- the media, the civil society, all the different stakeholders.
“I think it creates more [of an] environment for new ideas and to see what is the most important thing to be done,” he says, ”and to have a national consensus on major issues.”
Decisions made under a democratic government, says Diop, are more dependable over time.
“Maybe the authoritarian government may give us the impression that things are done effectively, but it’s not sustainable over the long term.”
Dealing with corruption
Diop mentions the Millennium Challenge Corporation as an incentive for countries to avoid corruption when receiving assistance. If an African country solves a corruption problem internally beforehand, he says, it’s more efficient than having outsiders dictate terms before providing aid.
In 2002, Mali’s president authorized an accounting office modeled on Canada’s; an independent auditor is appointed for seven years and cannot be removed by anyone in government. The auditor has the authority over all governmental institutions, including the presidency and parliament.
As a result, the former ambassador says, a lot of money stolen from the budget has been recovered. But he adds that corruption is a complex issue and requires cooperation on the part of everyone, not just the government.
“We need to have society also to play its part; we need also the judiciary to be involved,” he says.
“I think that we need all the stakeholders also to play their part so that there is a demand, even in our population, for more fight against corruption to make sure that the little resources that we have are really used the most effective way.”
Regardless of the amount of corruption, Diop says, it must be brought under control.
“Because we are in a crisis, that means we don’t have enough resources to face our needs. That’s why it’s important that the fight against corruption come(s) as a way to increase resources, but also to increase the confidence and the trust of your own population, [and] also of the countries and the institutions that are supporting us financially.”
The most important challenge in the U.S. effort is to make sure agriculture is high on the international agenda, Diop says, adding the best way to do that is to insure that necessary resources are in place and to continue to take advantage of programs such as the Comprehensive Africa Agricultural Development Program, CAADP -- part of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development, NEPAD.
Indicators for the future look encouraging, he says.
“I see a lot of good will around the table -- from the U.S. side, from the World Bank, from the multilateral and bilateral institutions,” he says, “and we also see it from African governments being more and more committed to agriculture.”
Now, he says, the challenge for Africa is to find the most effective way to deliver help in order to reverse the current trends.