Just recently, UN News told the world that a large number of communities across Africa (and indeed elsewhere) were “facing catastrophic levels of acute hunger”. In real-time fact, some 34 million people were starving.
By the Spring of 2021, the FAO was categorizing some 34 African states as requiring “external assistance for food”. The reason behind such dire straits was multiple : armed violence provoking mass movement of refugees, troubled harvests, volatility of staple prices, floods and locusts, droughts – the mix of human agency and bad luck cursing already malnourished economies and severely limited welfare-ism.
Meanwhile, even before coronavirus struck, official figures (such as there are) were confirming a sad truth : millions of Africans are not going to see out their fifties. Life expectancy in, say, the Central African Republic – population 5m – is 53 years; in Somalia – population 15m – life expectancy is 57; in Chad – population also 15m – life expectancy is 54. The income per capita in each country consecutively is : $467, $320, $709 – ie not much wiggle-room in the family food budget there. (The equivalent figure on the same WB scale for a prosperous Western European country would be in excess of $40,000). In many African counties, we note in passing, life expectancy does not reach beyond even 65 years – Mozambique 61; Uganda 63; Burkina Faso 62.
Of course, Africa has its success stories (of economic + technological transformation) and its swelling middle-classes. It is also true that soon the continent will house more octogenarians than it ever has in history. But as the UN News report stresses, life qua daily search for food is specially grim for families living in Yemen, South Sudan and Northern Nigeria. Of course, UN agencies and relief organization do their best to dramatize both famine and the continual threat of famine across the continent while much solid practical aid is delivered every year. Ethiopia, for instance, with a population of ca 110m, is highly dependent on annual supplies of food aid in order to interdict outright starvation for millions of its citizens. (See FAO passim).
But. Too many Africans are dying young, dying with the distress that their children may well continue to experience gruesome food shortages into the foreseeable, dying with no sense whatsoever of the benevolence of retirement.
The purpose of this blog is to call for equal billing for Africa’s persistent food crisis – equal billing alongside climate change and the global campaign to address it.
No-one is going to argue that Africa is still not groaning under the residual legacies of imperialism. No-one is going to argue that the effort of any country or NGO to create a stable basis for successful pluri-annual agricultural production is not vexed by global warming and sometimes chaotic weather. And surely no-one is going to argue that the UN’s SDGs take the form of an ideological cafeteria whereby one can choose only the goals one politically favours most. (The first two Goals are, after all : No Poverty and Zero Hunger).
People and processes get the blame for the earth’s warming. Quite right too. But nobody is contributing to the solution by being allowed to die young and hungry. The goal for democratic policy-makers in the West – we have indubitably learned that no long-term purification will be delivered by autocratic regimes – is to decarbonize while at the same time eliminating mass poverty. The families we are discussing here – inhabiting so many localities in Africa – cannot wait till organized ecological sensitivity in the West has achieved policy-perfection, however defined. The door has to be left open to as much aid as we can muster, maximized trade, super-stimulated economic activity, all with employment as full as possible.
Now, lots of excellent work is done by the FAO and some of its member-states in elaborating dietary guidelines that are appropriate to the regions concerned – invariably promoting wholegrains, lentils, beans, pulses, water, nuts, yoghourts, etc. Many food companies, one is sure, are innovating under this banner to educate and equip the continent’s cooks. But the coarse reality is that too many African families are having too many bad days, days when supplies of even barely nutritional food are pretty invisible.
In addition, it is the height of neo-imperialism for voices in the relative prosperity of Europe to tell African families who to eat / what to avoid and, in the sense we use here, how to behave.
Residents of countries where a majority of the population can access at least cheap restaurants and takeaways – with menus, choices, price points, meats, fats, chips and bhajis, satay and taco… – should generally abjure dietary advice for their starving cousins to the south. No European has the right to deny the right to – we accept that it’s a dangerous phrase – food-consumerism to families who might just (if our worldwide macroeconomic luck holds and in the lifetime of every sexagenarian reading this) rise from the category of living on less than $2 per day to that of more than $20 per day.
For every human being alive today deserves sustainability of life and has the right to a longevity.
As one confronts the news from UN officials in Africa (with their sad song of mass hunger, one which is not going to get chirpy any time soon), one wishes that those Western celebrities advocating population control would stop (just as one wishes that nobody with a voice that carries would stop being anti-vaccination). Economic progress brings down population expansion; we need to stop blaming poor people for the essentially confined choices which, even and indeed especially today, they face.
Finally, a dream experiment. Imagine that this very day you were transported to the gates of a refugee camp somewhere in Sudan. Inside there are thousands of hungry and frightened people who cannot go home or easily re-settle elsewhere. You walk through. As it happens, you have brought with you some leaflets – available in the relevant languages – about melting glaciers, the need to switch to electric vehicles, the campaign against meat-based diets, the attractiveness of the 15 minute city, the imperative of cutting short-haul flights from the holiday agenda, minimizing energy consumption in the home, the health benefits of a Dry January….. But as you look into the eyes of very malnourished kids the leaflets stay untouched in your satchel. When you awake, you realise that your personal campaigning emphases really ought to change. Considerably.
And who was it said that “with devotion’s visage and with pious action/we do sugar o’er the devil himself”? Well, whoever it was, I’m a fan. So much of the Western street-agitation about preserving the planet must seem insultingly irrelevant to your average Sub-Saharan.
Of course, the spread of coronavirus has made the situation adumbrated here so much worse. Much of Africa’s life-chance in this decade has taken a hell of a battering; the virus is not to be coddled, a disaster upon disaster that it is. Many heavily indebted economies will continue to struggle to create any macro momentum and, as such, they are not likely to be deprecated by Western intellectuals for consumerist over-guzzling any time soon. All the more reason for Western agit-prop to put lives first, not the lives of generations to come but the lives with us on this planet, here and now and hungry.
If the ecological imperative ignores them then, well, it is not really ecological at all. Is it?
For there is an extinction already very much needing a rebellion. To deny or to marginalize this reality is, in the end, about as progressive as hosting a campus Wet T-Shirt competition.
Avoidable deaths do not a sustainable planet make. Just the opposite.