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Last Updated: Thursday, 2 February 2006, 16:19 GMT
Head-to-head: Africa's food crisis
Nicholas Crawford [WFP/Rein Skullerud] and Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem
Which participant, Nicholas Crawford or Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem, do you agree with?
An official from the UN's World Food Programme (WFP), Nicholas Crawford, and Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem, a pan-Africanist and Director of Justice Africa, debate what is causing Africa's deepening food crisis and what the solutions might be.

We also want to know what you think, so please use the link at the end of the page to join the debate.

Nicholas Crawford, World Food Programme

Let's start by remembering that Africa is not a single country.

The reasons for the current food crisis - and the need for emergency aid, including food - vary from country to country.

Africa map

There are also some very positive developments in parts of Africa - experiences that point to solutions for solving the problems of hunger on the continent.

The causes for the present hunger crisis are multifold: countries in conflict or emerging from conflict and trying to rebuild their capacity such as West Africa, Sudan, Somalia, Uganda, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Or countries beset with chronic environmental challenges combined with population growth like Ethiopia, Niger, Somalia and Kenya.

And countries in southern and eastern Africa ravaged by the HIV/Aids crisis, which in turn is further damaging agricultural and economic productivity (already under stress from the structural adjustment period beginning in the 1980s).

Weak governance is also a thread that runs through many of the countries that have faced food crises over the past decade.

International trade barriers that weaken incentives for agricultural production are another factor.


What are the solutions?

Political will to carry out what we know can halve hunger by 2015 and eliminate hunger altogether, including:

  • investment in Africa's agriculture and rural sector
  • dismantling of trade barriers and investment in African expertise to take advantage of trade opportunities
  • reducing malnutrition among mothers and children so that the generational cycle of poor nutrition and poverty is broken
  • improving and expanding basic education; the adoption of governance approaches that ensure accountability to citizens, including the vulnerable among them
  • and empowering the African Union and other regional bodies to take responsibility for peace and security on the continent

Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem, Justice Africa

While the regional and national differences and particularities you mentioned are important the root of the problem in all of them remains the same as far as I am concerned: powerlessness.

An elderly woman from Longonot Naivasha, Kenya carries her water jerricans along the Naivasha-Mai Mahiu road in search of water due to the drought in the area
Drought can and does happen in other places
Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem

People are hungry because they are powerless and powerless because they are hungry.

It's a vicious cycle.

Drought, can and does happen in other places; wars do happen with equal ferocity in other places.

What turns drought and other natural or unnatural disasters into famine, chronic hunger, mass death, etc is the power relation between the victims and those who control, govern, rule or misrule them.

No African country has ever refused to go to war (many of them unjust ones) because the IMF/World Bank, Western NGOs or the so-called donors say there is no money.


It is only when it comes to feeding our peoples, educating our children, building roads and hospitals, creating jobs and looking after the welfare of our peoples that our governments plead lack of resources.

Until we are able to transform the seemingly infinite capacity of our states for war into one for peace and prosperity for our peoples we shall remain victims.

Also it is evidently clear that there are serious limitations on solving these problems in one country.

We need to be looking at sub-regional and continental solutions in order to arrest the absurdity of having surpluses in one country while another country (sometimes even from the same region) will be starving.

It happens even within the same country.

So of all the solutions you put forward, national political will and pan-African leadership is the most crucial without which other solutions will not be sustainable.

Nicholas Crawford, World Food Programme

Thanks for your very interesting take on the root causes of hunger in Africa.

Where we might differ is on what constitutes real solutions in the real world.

All the suggestions you make about relief and development aid going hand-in-hand with wider education... are music to my ears
Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem

I'm a bit sceptical of any movements that start with the prefix "pan".

Is empowerment likely to come from "national political will and pan-African leadership" as you suggest and if so, how long should we expect to wait for this to take hold?

In the meantime, to state the obvious, people in many parts of Africa are hungry and without regular and healthy food they are not likely to build much of a groundswell of demand for accountability from the politicians.

Kenyan children with food aid
What we have to do is make sure that the delivery of food and other assistance is regular and sufficient
Nicholas Crawford

What can we do to address immediate hunger and at the same time encourage a citizenship that demands their rights?

My feeling is that relief and development food assistance (and non-food assistance when this makes more sense to address hunger) should not be delivered in a knowledge vacuum.

Refugee and IDP camp food assistance, school feeding programmes, general food distributions, food-for-work projects and nutrition projects can all be delivered in ways that expand people's choices and knowledge.


What we have to do is make sure that the delivery of food and other assistance is regular and sufficient so that we are not constantly starting from scratch each time there is a new crisis.

Or barely helping to keep people's heads above water as they survive year in and year out through chronic poverty and food insecurity.

Pan-African leadership will remain an abstraction - and some national political leaders will continue to be unresponsive - as long as the kind of people that WFP helps do not gain a voice.

Maybe consistent and sufficient support at grassroots level among hungry people - including with food assistance - is the way to achieve that voice.

Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem, Justice Africa

Pan-Africanism is no longer a utopian ideal. It is a precondition for the survival of Africa and Africans.

India, China, both, probably have more people in poverty than all of Africa yet they are not the object of charity and aid the way Africa has become.

Britain's International Development Secretary Hilary Benn, listens to an aid worker at a feeding centre in Wajir district, northern Kenya
Who are the humanitarian agencies themselves accountable to
Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem

All the suggestions you make about relief and development aid going hand-in-hand with wider education about rights, civic engagement for accountability, responsive and responsible leadership are music to my ears.

But where is the WFP, UNHCR or the army of humanitarian agencies working across Africa putting these ideas into practice?

It is true that many African governments are not accountable to their peoples - that is why they can violate their basic right to live and the means of sustaining those lives.

Western wallets

But who are the humanitarian agencies themselves accountable to?

Do the people they serve have any voice in their operations beyond being objects of their compassion?

The sad truth is that humanitarian agencies are locked up in a "fire brigade", compassion-driven negative image of Africa that helps to draw attention to perpetual "crisis" but cannot go beyond the stereotypical imagery of desperately poor Africans needing the help of others.

This template is what unlocks the wallets, treasuries and credit cards of the people and governments of the West.

That is why emergency responses are relatively easier than long term engagement that genuine development cooperation entails.

For fundraising, you are right, there is a certain image presented of Africa that sells in the West. This raises money
Nicholas Crawford

One cannot help the cynical conclusion that Africa's misery has become a career and a multi-billion dollar industry with many local, national and international stake holders in its perpetration.

I do not blame anybody but ourselves and especially myopic and irresponsible leaders.

The world does not owe us a living. We owe this to ourselves.

It is not that we don't need help but too many of our countries are too weak and vulnerable to be able decide where and how this help can be most useful.

Nicholas Crawford, World Food Programme

I might agree with you that the system of aid and relief, from a distance, seems to be failing and self-perpetuating.

But from the perspective of many of the communities we work in, accepting this conclusion and its logical implications is not so easy.

Elderly women wait to receive food rations from government officers in Suswa, Kenya
The involvement of women in our programmes, especially their control of resources, is standard practice and we believe it is politically transformative
Nicholas Crawford

Are the individuals in the relief and development business - those working at the field level, often dedicated, sometimes selfless, often delivering real assets (like sacks of food) and in most cases quickly disabused of any preconceived notions they might have had about the alleged powerlessness of poor African people and their communities - unconsciously contributing to the maintenance of a rotten system?

Or are they and their programmes doing something towards preserving the dignity of people and further empowering them as political and governance forces on the continent evolve?

For fundraising, you are right, there is a certain image presented of Africa that sells in the West.

This raises money.

But I don't think Africans see themselves this way and while this ploy empties wallets in the West it does also transfer some of that money to wallets in Africa.

Is that such a bad thing?

I don't buy the theories (which have been thoroughly discredited anyway) that the system of relief and development food assistance is creating a culture of dependency.


Could we at WFP, UNHCR and other agencies do much better?

Of course.

You ask what we are doing to put these ideas about rights and so forth into practice.

I don't know where you stand on gender and women's issues in Africa, but I will give you one example.

For WFP, the involvement of women in our programmes, especially their control of resources, is standard practice and we believe it is politically transformative.

Returnee women in up-country, post-conflict Sierra Leone running community agriculture projects funded by WFP and refugee women carrying family ration cards with their names and photos are two examples that spring to mind.

Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem, Justice Africa

Your last comment is typical of the moral spasms of the average Westerner about aid and charity which often boils down to: even if one life is saved it is worth it!

Besides denunciations of the aid system, what is it you are you actually calling for? What choice are you making?
Nicholas Crawford

Please forgive me if I am not impressed by saving one life in a continent where millions need not die prematurely if...

There are difficult moral and political issues without easy solutions.

But the argument of "something is better than nothing" after so many years of food aid and other charity have made many of our governments more irresponsible and created false hopes in our peoples that Messiahs will come from Europe to solve our problems.

It is morally repugnant and should be politically unacceptable that Ethiopia and Eritrea can waste so much resources in useless border wars and then outsource the feeding of their peoples to NGOs, WFP, UNHCR and others.


How many of those lives saved in 1984 by Geldof in Ethiopia are self-sufficient today?

Sir Bob Geldof holding a press conference to present the Live 8 charity event
Many look back on Live 8 critically

If food aid works why was Live 8 necessary in 2005?

You make carrying food ration ID cards with pictures sound like a badge of honour and some kind liberation for women.

Is it affirming the dignity and equality of the African woman to have the same right to beg like the famished and impoverished African man in a refugee camp?

I hope to visit some of these empowerment projects of the WFP in Africa that you talk so glowingly about. I want to know what is so empowering about them? How many of them will still be standing the day WFP pulls the plug on them?

Aid is addictive.

For as long as there are so many aid pushers fuelling the addiction Africans will never be able to stand up on their feet.


Am I opposed to feeding those who are hungry?

With good governance, most African countries could be net exporters of agricultural produce
Darren, Lobatse, Botswana

Of course not, but we need to look beyond the hunger and ask why they are hungry and what can be done to end the conditions that generate such absolute poverty that makes millions suffer the indignity of depending on others to feed themselves.

It is about power at local, national and international levels.

Remember the famous quote: "When I feed the poor they call me a saint but when I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist".

Too many saints around without many communists is turning Africa into a permanent emergency for latter day missionaries to shower in conspicuous charity!

Nicholas, I guess we all have to make our choice whether we become self-chosen saints or communists.

Or both, as and when situations demands it.

Nicholas Crawford, World Food Programme

Spasms apart - and let's be honest, Westerners don't have a monopoly on spasms when it comes to aid and charity - you are right that we all make our choices.

WFP's choice is to engage, to be there on the ground, to acknowledge (hopefully) our major failures and shortcomings.

And to work in the real world trying to try to get things right and trying to move towards solving hunger in a continent that will continue to be wracked with enormous problems, while you and others do whatever it takes to bring about the pan-Africanism you are dreaming of.

Are we really at cross-purposes?

Do not patronise people dependent on you by calling them partners. Even on slave plantations there were partnerships!
Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem

Besides denunciations of the aid system, what is it you are actually calling for?

What choice are you making?

If it's immediately closing shop on the Bob Geldof's and the WFPs because there is - decades of aid later - so much food insecurity, come out and say it and acknowledge the costs.

And by the way, please do talk to some of the women who have never had an ID card in their life or been entrusted with family resources: they don't see themselves as beggars.

Thanks for the passion and the stimulating discussion.

Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem, Justice Africa

Let me spell it out clearly: Africa does not need aid or armies of bleeding heart liberals to feed its people, clothe them, educate them, if we have responsive and responsible leadership.

An elderly Kenyan man waits for the government's food aid distribution in Longonot on the Great Rift valley
A people without a dream to work towards will suffer nightmares
Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem

Our aims differ: you offer charity while justice is what we seek.

You lament poverty and even believe you want to alleviate it but our focus is on the internal and external dimensions of Africa's impoverishment.

Aid strengthens superiority/inferiority complexes in a relationship mediated by slavery, colonialism and now recolonisation.

Aid agencies have become both willing and unwilling bodyguards of the new imperialism.

The fact that there are many Africans working in them does not change their character.

The colonial bureaucracies were full of Africans!

Do not patronise people dependent on you by calling them partners. Even on slave plantations there were partnerships!

China is a threat to the West today and India is treated with respect because God cannot make 1.3 and 1.1bn (respectively) people stupid.


A united Africa is essential for us to seize control of our destiny.

A people without a dream to work towards will suffer nightmares. Has Africa not had enough nightmares?

You are so consumed by wanting to save us that you cannot see how we can and are saving ourselves.

I end on a specially adapted prayer: God save me from my liberal friends because the conservative opponent I can deal with, without any pretences on both sides.

All the best.

What do you think? Do you agree with Nicholas Crawford or Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem? Send us your views using the link below.

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