Horn of Africa Drought, Food Crisis: Agricultural Trade Policies Questioned

13 July 2011

Severe drought has left some ten million people in the Horn of Africa short of food and water, the UN has warned. As the crisis grows, some experts are questioning the role of agricultural trade and investment policies in the region.

A joint statement from two intergovernmental agencies and a humanitarian aid group has said that the "slow-onset" humanitarian crisis leaves millions of women, men, and children vulnerable to "devastating hunger and malnutrition."

Full funding of emergency assistance, support to poor farmers, and policies to address challenges such as climate change are needed "to ensure that complacency does not drive destiny in this region," claims the communiqué, which was issued on 8 July by the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Food Programme (WFP), along with aid agency Oxfam.

The groups say that Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, and parts of Uganda are affected by the crisis; the majority of the newly affected people - 1.2 million, by the groups' estimates - are reportedly in Kenya. The number of Somali refugees in Kenyan and Ethiopian camps has also grown to a record of over half a million people.

"As a net food importing country, we have suffered the full force of the food crisis that is currently affecting the region," one government official told Bridges. "Malnutrition has exacerbated the rural exodus, with thousands of refugees fleeing their villages every day and piling into camps."

Drought remains "a major threat with no likelihood of improvement until early 2012," the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said in a separate statement.

Investment: small farmers neglected

"There's been a neglect of agriculture and, importantly, of sustainable agricultural practices," an FAO economist told Bridges, arguing that the region has the potential to feed its population if local producers are given the resources they need.

Farmers in the drought-stricken countries lack infrastructure - storage facilities, rural roads, and electricity - as well as inputs such as machinery, fertiliser, and water, the official noted. Substantial increases in investment in these areas are needed for people to be able to withstand supply shocks such as drought, he added.

In Somalia, conflict and political instability have triggered the large-scale collapse of state institutions, undermining agricultural productivity and creating knock-on effects on other countries in the region.

"Some of the most fertile areas in the world" can be found in the countries affected by the crisis, the FAO official said. "Why do we not help the poor to reap the potential that's there?"

Trade: livestock disease and unsustainable grazing

Trade flows, and in particular the export of livestock from the Horn of Africa to neighbouring countries in the Gulf, may have played a role in contributing to the current crisis, one expert said.

Consumers in countries such as Saudi Arabia and Yemen have contributed to strong demand for sheep and goat meat from the region, which they tend to prefer over imported livestock from other agricultural producers, such as Australia or New Zealand.

The strong demand may have contributed to unsustainable grazing practices and to a growth in the prevalence of diseases, such as tuberculosis, that can affect both livestock and people.

"Moving supplies internally takes a lot of time and is very expensive," said another UN official familiar with the region, who noted that live animals often have to be transported thousands of kilometres on foot and in lorries before they reach a port. The arduous journey can mean that animals lose a substantial share of their value in transit - a problem compounded by internal roadblocks and fees levied by government officials.

Streamlining internal markets could help countries meet domestic demand more efficiently, the official claimed.

Food price increases

Citing OCHA data, the Guardian reported high levels of food price inflation in the region, with red sorghum increasing 240 percent in the Somali town of Baidoa, yellow maize increasing by 117 percent in Jiga, Ethiopia, and an increase of 58 percent in the price of white maize in Mandera, Kenya.

While high prices reflect the collapse in domestic supply of agricultural products, experts said they may also reflect the unusually high level of price transmission from international markets at a time of global shortages for many farm commodities.

One Geneva-based trade negotiator from the region pinned the blame for local price increases on structural adjustment reforms, arguing that these had constrained the policies that their government could use to respond to emergency situations.

Price controls, emergency reserves and intervention buying had also been used in the past to respond to natural disasters when they had occurred - but the structural adjustment reforms passed in the 1990s limited their government's ability to use these instruments, the official said.

Despite recent riots over food price inflation, policy-makers were unable to respond effectively. "Now the government just looks on helplessly," the source added.

Agricultural export restrictions

With food prices at record levels, even some exporting countries have decided to impose restrictions on farm exports in recent months, prompting recriminations from food importing countries who claim that these measures have exacerbated global shortages and escalating prices on world markets.

Egypt, on behalf of a group of net food importing countries at the WTO, recently proposed that least-developed countries and net food importing countries should be exempt from restrictions on agricultural exports imposed by major exporting nations.

A June meeting of agricultural ministers from the G-20 group of major economies also agreed to remove food export restrictions on humanitarian aid purchased by the World Food Programme, and proposed that trade ministers adopt a specific resolution on the issue at the WTO ministerial conference this December (see Bridges Weekly, 29 June 2011).

"I think that pronouncement is welcome," observed a government official from the drought-stricken region, who added that the net food importing countries had proposed a more ambitious solution to the problem.

"In the past, the G-20 has made several pronouncements that have not materialised," the source observed sceptically.

ICTSD reporting; "Horn of Africa drought: interactive map," THE GUARDIAN, 4 July 2011; "Eastern Africa Drought Humanitarian Report no. 3," OCHA, 10 June 2011.

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