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The UNDP’s surprising, alarming, Africa view, lurid with green manipulation

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In mid-May 2012, the United Nations Development Programme (the UNDP) released its Africa Human Development report for 2012. Entitled ‘Towards a Food Secure Future’, the report is unremarkable for its assessments and language – these have changed but little where Africa (indeed where the recalcitrant South is concerned) is concerned over the last 30 years – and remarkable for the subtext of the agriculture and food focus to human development.

Houley Dia ran out of food a month ago and is now existing on water. A 60-something-year-old widow, she lives in Houdallah, a village of the Fula ethnic group in southern Mauritania on the border with Senegal. Photo: IRIN / Nils Elzenga

The UNDP today, like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (and their cousin multilateral lending agencies, the African Development Bank, the Asian Development Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank, all incestuous, all unscrupulous, all functioning as think-sinks for mendacious economists who lie with flash charts and sophisticated ppts), is softly softly peddling an industry line. The industry in this case, in the 2012 for Africa case, is food and agriculture, land and poverty, the provisioning of specials foods and the provisioning of the money with which to purchase this reconstituted manna.

For most of Africa south of the Maghrib (or Maghreb, if you prefer, it is impossible to render adequately the flowing Arabic, the Ar’biyy’a, into l’Anglais, into the stilted Roman alphabet) wherever white settlement occured in quantity, the pattern in land expropriation and the use of labour was set by the Union of South Africa. So said Basil Davidson in ‘Let Freedom Come’ (Little, Brown & Co., 1978). This pattern heralded a long period of rising white prosperity still continuing in the 1970s, if with some checks and hiccups (hiccoughs too, the uprising kind) in the 1920s and 1930s, remarked Davidson. He pointed out that South Africa’s Land Act of 1913 provided a model that abolished all African land ownership (i.e., ownership by ‘native’ Africans). Labour supply was increased and the wage rate was lowered and Davidson went on to say that “the same system of proletarianising self-sufficient peasants and of driving them into a labour market where they could have no bargaining power, was used elsewhere with local variants”.

Now, almost a century after that Land Act come into being (providing the precursor to apartheid) an African Development Report from the UN’s development experts has said that “addressing hunger is a precondition for sustained human development in sub-Saharan Africa” (who writes such sentences, I wonder, for do they truly not see the puppet of hunger in Africa and the South) dancing from the threads in the hands of the grain marketeers of the North and their local agents?). “Food security must be at centre of continent’s development agenda,” the report observes magisterially.

A Malian refugee woman in Mangaize, northern Niger, ponders her future. In January, she and her family fled Menaka, a town in Mali, because of the general insecurity and fighting between the army and Tuareg fighters. Photo: IRIN / UNCHR / H.Caux

Pithy statements of concern are duly provided (and recirculated by the world’s press) by the UNDP public relations robots. Hence UNDP Administrator Helen Clark is quoted: “Impressive GDP growth rates in Africa have not translated into the elimination of hunger and malnutrition. Inclusive growth and people-centred approaches to food security are needed.” Hence Tegegnework Gettu, Director of UNDP’s Africa Bureau is quoted: “It is a harsh paradox that in a world of food surpluses, hunger and malnutrition remain pervasive on a continent with ample agricultural endowments.”

And that is why this report, ‘Towards a Food Secure Future’, is replete with paragraphs like the following, appropriating the language of fairness to conceal behind it the naked greed of the globe’s industrial food networks, their agri-biotechnology partners, their unreliable allies the commodity exchanges, and the political brokers who stitch together, for huge commissions, the whole wreck of an exploitative opera: “Breaking with the past, standing up to the vested interests of the privileged few and building institutions that rebalance power relations at all levels of society will require courageous citizens and dedicated leaders. Taking these steps is all the more pressing as new threats to the sustainability of sub-Saharan Africa’s food systems have emerged. Demographic change, environmental pressure, and global and local climate change are profoundly reconfiguring the region’s development options.”

This is the sort of hearkening to ‘green capitalism’, a disgusting notion, that the UNDP is steering dangerously close to. Why must it be so? Why should this UN agency err on the wrong side of propriety? A closer reading of Africa Human Development Report 2012, ‘Towards a Food Secure Future’, may answer these questions. Underlying the pregnant concern in the UNDP’s prose is an environmentalism that conforms to “weak sustainability” (as Samir Amin, director of the Third World Forum in Dakar, Senegal, has called it) and that is the marketing of “rights of access to the planet’s resources.” Great regiments of conventional economists have openly rallied to this position, proposing “the auctioning of world resources” (fisheries, pollution permits, forests, watersheds, and of course land). As Amin has said, this is a proposition which simply supports the oligopolies in their ambition to mortgage the future of the peoples of the South still further.

In villages in Mangalmé District, Guéra Region, central Chad, women have resorted to digging up ant nests in search of the grains of food ants leave behind. Some 3.5 million Chadians are food insecure this year (2012). Photo: IRIN / Oxfam / Stephen Cockburn

As the World Bank knows, the borrowing of an ecological discourse provides a very useful service to Imperialism Version 2.0. I find it impossible to imagine that the phalanx of authors who contributed to the Africa Human Development Report 2012 were all unaware of this capture, this mangling of the ecological discourse, this driving of a weak sustainability doctrine, this marginalising of the development issue and the diminishing, the ruthless diminishing, behind a sequined screen of consensual politics, of the agriculture and food rights of 53 countries that we have come to call Africa.

‘Towards a Food Secure Future’ has said, with the air of heavy pronouncement, with the air a cardinal of the curia adopts perhaps during a papal succession: “With more than one in four of its 856 million people undernourished, Sub-Saharan Africa remains the world’s most food-insecure region. At the moment, more than 15 million people are at risk in the Sahel alone – across the semi-arid belt from Senegal to Chad; and an equal number in the Horn of Africa remain vulnerable after last year’s food crisis in Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia.” Is there a hint of opportunism in these words? Is it possible that the Rockefeller of this era – in the form of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation – has subtly (or forcefully, for the era of subtle manipulation is as firmly buried as the Bandung cooperation and the Warsaw Pact) influenced the UNDP’s authors? This is, to my mind, a manifesto for the feeding of Africa which extends ambitiously the ecologist discourse in the direction of the merchants of nutrition, the brokers of grain, the doctors of plant DNA.

The UNDP’s Africa Human Development Report 2012, ‘Towards a Food Secure Future’, may prove to be a turning point for the agency, or it may prove, I hope, a bridge too far, too dangerous, and saner counsel will pull it back into the realm of the familiar damnation of the world’s majority that Frantz Fanon spoke about, which ended not with the withdrawal of formal colonial rule, which continues for Africa in the razorwire-bounded transit camps, in rural pauperisation (Asia too, South America too, East and Central Europe too) and in shanty towns where odes to Steve Biko are still sung.

Food crisis in the Sahel

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UN-OCHA map of vulnerability to food insecurity in the Sahel.

ReliefWeb has a series of backgrounders, assessment reports and maps to explain the malnutrition and food crisis in the Sahel. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has said that the Sahel is characterised by long standing chronic food insecurity and malnutrition, poverty and extreme vulnerability to drought. “The localised deficit recorded for the agropastoral season 2011-12 and increasing cereals prices in Mali and Niger could bring millions of people at risk of food insecurity,” said the UN-OCHA briefing.

Throughout the Sahel, acute malnutrition in children reaches its annual peak during the hunger season. Children under two years of age have the highest risk of becoming sick or dying during this period. Malnutrition is caused by inadequate food quality and quantity, inadequate care, as well as unhealthy household environment and lack of health services.

The prevalence of global acute malnutrition met or exceeded the critical threshold of 10% in all of the surveys conducted in the hunger season of 2011 (from May to August). If food security significantly deteriorates in 2012, the nutrition conditions for children could surpass emergency levels throughout the Sahel region.

Affected countries are: Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Gambia (the), Mali, Mauritania, Niger (the), Nigeria and Senegal.

Food insecurity and malnutrition chronically affect a significant part of the Sahel population. However, several events came in 2011 which exacerbate this vulnerability:

1. In 2011 many parts of the region received late and poorly distributed rains, resulting in average harvests and serious severe shortfall in some areas. Consequently, the Government of Niger as an example has estimated that the 2011 agro pastoral season will record a deficit of 519,600 tons of cereals and of over ten million tons of fodder for livestock.
2. In Mauritania, authorities expect a decrease of more than 75% of the agriculture production and a strong fodder deficit.
3. In areas where harvests are weak, households will run out of food stocks faster than usual and will be forced to rely on markets for supplies, contributing to maintaining the already high prices at the same level.

UN-OCHA map of expected cases of severe acute malnutrition in the Sahel.

Furthermore, the purchasing power of the most vulnerable populations is likely to deteriorate. In addition the lean season is estimated to begin earlier than usual, probably as early as January 2012 in Chad, two months in advance. As the situation gets worse by spring 2012, there will be an increase of infant acute malnutrition, already beyond emergency thresholds in four wilayas in southwestern Mauritania.

Several countries in the Sahel have already announced measures taken to curb the negative effects of the food insecurity and malnutrition on vulnerable populations; who have not had enough time to recover from the 2009-10 crisis, despite the good harvest registered last year. Three countries (Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Mali) have also requested for assistance from the humanitarian community. In late November, the United Nations Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF), administered by OCHA, allocated US$ 6 million to three organisations in Niger – the World Food Program, UNICEF and the Food and Agriculture Organization – for emergency operations to fight food insecurity and malnutrition.

According to a ‘Humanitarian Dashboard – Sahel’ dated 12 January 2012 released by UN-OCHA, early indicators point to a likely food crisis in localised areas of the Sahel in 2012, with people at particularly high risk in Mauritania, Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali, Chad, and localized areas of Senegal. These are:

1. Acute food insecurity already noted in southeastern Mauritania.
2. Deficits in 2011, in agro-pastoral production led to higher market prices, resulting in an earlier than usual need for food aid.
3. Resilience to food insecurity is low in most vulnerable groups.
4. High poverty level in Sahel (51%) impacting on food accessibility due to high prices.

FAO 2011 October Food Index down, food prices still up, what’s going on?

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FAO has released its Food Price Index for October 2011, saying the index has dropped dropped to an 11-month low, declining 4 percent, or nine points, to 216 points from September. Indeed the index has dropped, declined and has certainly not risen. But does this mean food prices for the poor in many countries, for labour, for informal workers, for cultivators too – has the cost of food dropped for any of them?

The answer is a flat and unequivocal ‘No’. FAO has said so too: “Nonetheless prices still remain generally higher than last year and very volatile.” At the same time, the Rome-based food agency has said that the “drop was triggered by sharp declines in international prices of cereals, oils, sugar and dairy products”.

The FAO has said that an “improved supply outlook for a number of commodities and uncertainty about global economic prospects is putting downward pressure on international prices, although to some extent this has been offset by strong underlying demand in emerging countries where economic growth remains robust”.

Once again, the FAO is speaking in two or more voices. It should stop doing so. A very small drop in its food price index does not – repeat, does not – indicate that prices for food staples in the world’s towns and cities has dropped and people can afford to buy and cook a square meal a day for themselves and their children. Not so at all.

I am going to contrast what FAO has said about its October food price index with very recent reportage about food and food price conditions in various parts of the world.

FAO: “In the case of cereals, where a record harvest is expected in 2011, the general picture points to prices staying relatively firm, although at reduced levels, well into 2012. International cereal prices have declined in recent months, with the FAO Cereal Price Index registering an eleven month-low of 232 points in October. But nonetheless cereal prices, on average, remain 5 percent higher than last year’s already high level.”

Business Week reported that rising food prices in Djibouti have left 88 percent of the nation’s rural population dependent on food aid, the Famine Early Warning Systems Network said. A ban on charcoal and firewood production, which provides about half of the income of poor people in the country’s southeast region, may further increase hunger, the Washington- based agency, known as Fewsnet, said in an e-mailed statement today. Average monthly food costs for a poor urban family are about 33,907 Djibouti francs ($191), about 12,550 francs more than the average household income, Fewsnet said. Urban residents in the Horn of Africa nation don’t receive food aid, it said.

FAO: “According to [FAO’s November 2011] Food Outlook prices generally remain ‘extremely volatile’, moving in tandem with unstable financial and equity markets. ‘Fluctuations in exchange rates and uncertainties in energy markets are also contributing to sharp price swings in agricultural markets,’ FAO Grains Analyst Abdolreza Abbassian noted.”

A Reuters AlertNet report quoted Brendan Cox, Save the Children’s policy and advocacy director, having said that rising food prices are making it impossible for some families to put a decent meal on the table, and that the G20 meeting [currently under way in Cannes, France] must use this summit to agree an action plan to address the food crisis. Malnutrition contributes to nearly a third of child deaths. One in three children in the developing world are stunted, leaving them weak and less likely to do well at school or find a job. Prices of staples like rice and wheat have increased by a quarter globally and maize by three quarters, Save the Children says. Some countries have been particularly hard hit. In Bangladesh the price of wheat increased by 45 percent in the second half of 2010. In new research, Save the Children analysed the relationship between rising food prices and child deaths. It concluded that a rise in cereal prices – up 40 percent between 2009 and 2011 – could put 400,000 children’s lives at risk.

FAO: “Most agricultural commodity prices could thus remain below their recent highs in the months ahead, according to FAO’s biannual Food Outlook report also published today.  The publication reports on and analyzes developments in global food and feed markets. In the case of cereals, where a record harvest is expected in 2011, the general picture points to prices staying relatively firm, although at reduced levels, well into 2012.”

IRIN News reported that food production is expected to be lower than usual in parts of western Niger, Chad’s Sahelian zone, southern Mauritania, western Mali, eastern Burkina Faso, northern Senegal and Nigeria, according to a report by the World Food Programme (WFP) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and a separate assessment by USAID’s food security monitor Fews Net. “We are worried because these irregular rainfalls have occurred in very vulnerable areas where people’s resilience is already very weakened,” said livelihoods specialist at WFP Jean-Martin Bauer. Many Sahelian households live in a state of chronic food insecurity, he said. “They are the ones with no access to land, lost livestock, without able-bodied men who can find work in cities – they are particularly affected by a decrease in production.” A government-NGO April 2011 study in 14 agro-pastoral departments of Niger noted that pastoralists with small herds lost on average 90 percent of their livestock in the 2009-2010 drought, while those with large herds lost one quarter. Those who had lost the bulk of their assets have already reduced the quality and quantity of food they are consuming.

FAO: “Food Outlook forecast 2011 cereal production at a record 2 325 million tonnes,  3.7 percent above the previous year. The overall increase comprises a 6.0 percent rise in wheat production, and increases of 2.6 percent for coarse grains and 3.4 percent for rice. Globally, annual cereal food consumption is expected to keep pace with population growth, remaining steady at about 153 kg per person.”

The Business Line reported that in India, food inflation inched up to 11.43 per cent in mid-October, sharply higher than the previous week’s annual rise of 10.6 per cent, mainly on account of the statistical base effect of the previous year. Inflation in the case of non-food items and the fuels group, however, eased during the latest reported week. According to data released by the Government on Thursday, an increase in the year-on-year price levels of vegetables and pulses contributed to the surge in the annual WPI-based food inflation for the week ended October 15, apart from the base effect. Sequentially food inflation was up 0.25 per cent.

FAO: “The continuing decline in the monthly value of the FAO Cereal Price Index reflects this year’s prospect for a strong production recovery and slow economic growth in many developed countries weighing on overall demand, particularly from the feed and biofuels sectors.”

Al Ahram reported that Egyptian household budgets had mixed news in September with prices for some basic foods tumbling month-on-month and others showing small climbs, according to state statistics agency CAPMAS. Figures released this week show the price of local unpacked rice fell 15.6 per cent to LE4.96 per kilo between August and September 2011. It was the commodity’s first decline in nearly a year, although the per kilo price remains 68 per cent higher than the LE2.95 that rice cost in October 2010. Chicken also fell 5.8 per cent to LE16.26 per kilo between August and September. Other staples, however, continued to rise; the price of potatoes climbed 14 per cent to LE4.89 per kilo, while a kilo of tomatoes gained a monthly 14.8 per cent to cost LE4.65.