With millions of southern Africans facing starvation, Australia must reconsider its aid policies
October 8 2002 - First Published in the Sydney Morning Herald in the Opinion Section
With millions of southern Africans facing starvation, Australia must reconsider its aid policies, write Andrew Hewett and Jack de Groot.
There is a food crisis gripping southern Africa. Hundreds are dying daily and have been since March. Malawi, Zambia, Mozambique, Lesotho, Swaziland, Zimbabwe and Angola are bearing the brunt. In many places, this is the second or third consecutive year of food shortages and people's ability to cope has been exhausted.
With little response from the international community, about 14.4 million people are facing extreme food shortages and risk dying of starvation before the next food harvest in April. The causes of the crisis are complex and interrelated. While the region has suffered from adverse weather conditions with successive years of drought, poverty is a major underlying cause. It takes away people's safety net, making them particularly vulnerable.
Then there is the high prevalence of HIV/AIDS. People with HIV-related illnesses are suffering further declines in health because of malnutrition. This creates an enormous strain on communities which have a desperate need for able-bodied and healthy workers. In Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe, it is common for grandparents to be caring for 10 or more children due to AIDS-related deaths. With 3 million AIDS orphans in these countries, there is an increase in numbers of households headed by children and loss of agricultural knowledge between one generation and the next.
The spiral of economic decline impacting on the whole region has affected people's ability to earn a living. This is accentuated by declining prices for Africa's commodities and the hypocrisy of the United States and European countries in refusing to fully open their markets to African exports. Donor-driven policies of liberalising food production have been controversial, with evidence that they have made it more difficult for people to grow food or to afford to buy it. In Zimbabwe, drought and civil conflict have contributed to a collapse in food production.
Food production in southern Africa is fragile and needs carefully thought-out policies. While African farmers are told they can no longer have free seeds or fertilisers, US farmers are receiving an average $A35,000 a year in subsidies - which is soon to increase by 70 per cent - and European Union farmers $28,000.
In an appeal for food aid from the international community, the UN World Food Program (WFP) estimates that southern Africa will need 4 million tonnes of food over the next year to ensure people survive. The response of the international community to the appeal has to date been dismal - only 36 per cent of the needed funds have been pledged by donor governments.
The Australian Government is to be commended for its initial contribution of $16 million to the WFP appeal. Additional aid will be needed over coming months. More worrying, however, is the extent of the Australian Government's commitment to long-term assistance to southern Africa. Despite growing community support for aid to Africa - more than 500,000 Australians support NGO aid projects in Africa - Australian Government aid to Africa has halved in real terms since 1995.
The Government should develop a comprehensive policy framework towards Africa which integrates immediate humanitarian aid with long-term assistance, appropriate trade policy and leadership on debt relief for heavily indebted African countries.
The countries experiencing the worst of the food crisis are members of the Commonwealth. In this they share much in common with Australia in the sense of heritage and democratic aspiration. At a time when the Australian Prime Minister has been asked to take a lead in regard to Zimbabwe, it is appropriate that Australia shows its deeper concern for the wellbeing of our Commonwealth brothers and sisters. We must strengthen our own commitment and advocate a better trade relationship for African nations with Europe and the US, as well as respond to the humanitarian imperative of starving people.
Oxfam Community Aid Abroad and Caritas Australia have begun distributing food to some of the most vulnerable people in the region, and supplying tools and seeds for crop planting. Working in Malawi, Angola, Zimbabwe and Mozambique, both agencies are helping communities secure their livelihoods in the longer term.
They and a number of other organisations are doing what they can. But the answer to southern Africa's looming disaster needs a fully committed international community working towards a viable long-term solution.
Andrew Hewett is the executive director of Oxfam Community Aid Abroad. Jack de Groot is the national director of Caritas Australia.