Franklin Cudjoe : Development & Economic Freedom, Reflections on Africa’s Famine: What Jeffrey Sachs overlooked

Date Posted on Global Envision: February 14, 2006

If the recent famine across much of West, sub-Saharan, and East Africa could be solved by fiat money and massive food aid, Jeffrey Sachs and the World Food Program would not be the first to receive praise from starving Africans. Unfortunately, showing love for Africa in this way has been the very reason for its backwardness.

Niger, for example, is an epitome of a poor country overburdened with nature’s harshest lot. It has spent most of its post-colonial era under Marxist socialism, one of many failed government experiments, and two thirds of the country is desert. Famine, under these conditions, has been an ally.

The current leadership still clutches to the old ways of doing business, sweeping things under the carpet and often coming down hard on whistleblowers. Niger tied with Equatorial Guinea and India at 118 out of 158 in the Heritage/Wall Street 2005 Index of Economic Freedom. Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index puts it at 122 globally and 27 out of 36 in Africa.

The prevailing famine is the most extreme yet. Locust invasions have derailed food storage efforts and have left two-and-a-half million people, almost a third of the population, severely malnourished. While the majority of the region is having trouble – Mali, Mauritania, Burkina Faso and Northern Ghana receiving the most recent emergency relief efforts – Niger looks set to solidify its position as the second poorest country on the face of the earth.

In early September 2005, climatically well-favored sub-Saharan and East African countries were also on the edge of famine. Some 10 million people alone were affected in sub- Saharan Africa. A closer look at the candidates for the hunger prize reveals nothing new about their economic profile – Zimbabwe, Malawi, Zambia, Mozambique, Swaziland and Lesotho have reformed the least. All of these countries have a history peppered with socialist-style utopian villages that failed to produce everlasting wealth.

Instead of focusing on commercial farming, sub-Saharan African countries at the time nationalized state farms, disrespected property rights of poor peasants and controlled farm proceeds through marketing boards. Subsistence farmers had little incentive to expand production.

The cold war entrenched state-led agricultural programs in sub-Saharan Africa too. The programs subsequently failed resulting in these countries becoming dependent upon food aid and cash.

The socialist Ethiopian government reflects a similar story of intervention. The UN at the time supported Ethiopia’s state-led agricultural program against commercial agriculture and often referred to it as “forward-looking” and “progressive.”

East Africa has also had its share of self-imposed crises. Two million people in Kenya face acute famine and Ethiopia has yet to shed off its retrogressive Marxist-style agriculture practices it adopted in the 70s.Aid was simply seen as paying up for the misplaced guilt of slavery and colonialism.

The trend is slow to change. Even though 60 per cent of Ethiopia is arable, only 10 per cent has been cultivated. Prime Minister Meles Zinawe believes giving back state lands to Ethiopians will make them selfish and that they will sell out to multinationals, impoverishing themselves in the process. He does not consider that they may be getting fair values they could reinvest in other areas of the economy. (I bet Ethiopia’s living patron saint Bob Geldolf doesn’t get this either.) Instead, Zinawe has set up a bureau to supervise the distribution of donated food to Ethiopian families. Similarly, Zimbabwe’s murderous kleptocrats are also in denial that forced state land redistribution has done little to assuage the country’s famine.

Stumbling Blocks: The Green Revolution & Corruption

Unfortunately, even as the UN strives for badly belated reforms, it continues to support failed solutions. The same dead hand that fed these starving African nations has now mutated into what Jeffrey Sachs calls a ‘Green Revolution.’

And while Sachs is right about the need for drought resistant varieties for nutrient-exhausted soils, it is not more aid money that will solve the apparent drought. By his own calculation, “out of every dollar of aid given to Africa, an estimated 16 per cent went to consultants from donor countries, 26 per cent went into emergency aid and relief operations, and 14 per cent went into debt servicing.” He unfortunately couldn’t account for how much of the remaining 44 per cent get siphoned off into Swiss banks by corrupt officials.

In one case, President Mamadou Tandja of Niger denied there was a food crisis in his country. But apart from exposing his flawed administrative response to the famine, Tandja was simply re-echoing Rwandan President, Paul Kagame’s lamentation of shady donor projects in his country. President Kagame is on record saying “there are projects here [in Rwanda] worth only $5m and when I looked at their expenses, I found that $1m was going into buying these cars, each one of them at $70,000. Another $1m goes to buy office furniture, $1m more for meetings and entertainment, and yet another $1m as salaries for technical experts, leaving only $1m for the actual expenditure on a poverty reducing activity. Is this the way to fight poverty?"

Even if the money weren’t being siphoned off to rampant corruption, it is wrongly assumed that Africans cannot afford genetically modified food and seeds. It is argued that agricultural biotechnology is a death sentence for future generations and that it will kill traditional agricultural practices. This denigrates human ingenuity under the most presumptuous definitions of sustainable development.

Markets Point the Way

History is replete with examples of the triumph of the capitalist approach to agricultural productivity over socialist interventions. Contrary to the subsidized farm inputs Jeffrey Sachs holds responsible for Asia’s Green Revolution 40 years ago, it was the creation of a private enterprise-based environment that gave the incentive to many Asians to till the land. Even Stalin’s collectivization program in the 1930s gave way to single-acre private plots that were forty times as efficient as the collective farms.

At the height of agricultural interventionism in Africa, China, the most populous communist state, was shedding off its interventionist baggage in agriculture. By 1998, China’s food supplies had gone up by 82 per cent from a subsistence level of 1,636 kilocalories per person per day in 1961 to 2,972 kilocalories per person per day. The Food and Agriculture Organization’s recommended daily energy intake for active adults is between 1,720 and 1,960 kilocalories per person per day.

India abandoned price controls on agriculture after interventionist agricultural policies resulted in a massive famine in the 1970s. By 1998, India’s food supplies went up 51 per cent from 1,635 kilocalories per person per day in 1951 to 2,466 kilocalories per person per day. By 1977 India not only was self-sufficient, it was exporting large quantities of grain. In addition, it had built up a grain reserve of 22 million tons which enabled it to manage the severe drought of 1979 without the need for food imports.

Since 1950, the global population increased by 90 per cent to its present level of 6 billion, yet only a little over a tenth of this figure (840 million) face hunger today. The demand for food increased and, simultaneously, the real price of food declined by 75 per cent. Yet, Africa is still millions of light years away from what has made this possible- greater agricultural productivity and international trade.


Increased agricultural productivity means Africa should take advantage of agricultural biotechnology in order to maintain the balance between ever increasing mouths to feed and loss of biodiversity. Genetic engineering could potentially increase agricultural yields by 25 per cent. This path would allow Sub-Saharan Africa to gain more than if it were to go the way of the Green Revolution, since the use of transgenic crops would not require as large of an investment as most Green Revolution techniques do.

The farmers who grow genetically enhanced cotton in the Makhatini Flats of South Africa demonstrate that agricultural biotechnology offers the opportunity of economic self-sufficiency for subsistence farmers in Africa. And the golden rice project, which could significantly reduce blindness related to Vitamin A deficiencies, reveals that the science also promises nutrition and health benefits for the developing world.

To be part of the agricultural biotechnology revolution we must first have the assurance of the rich West, especially the EU, that they will not put in place biased bio-safety protocols that would work against our agricultural produce under the guise of environmental protection.

Second, African leaders need to implement a series of reforms. Such an approach would release enormous entrepreneurial energy into wealth creation. The net effect gives power to real people who could then afford efficient and cleaner technologies or save and later reinvest in other sectors of the economy. Generally, the wealthier a country becomes, the more likely it is able to purchase food in the global market and afford more productive technologies that increase crop yields.

Its time to wriggle ourselves out of the crushing clutches of do-gooders such as Jeffrey Sachs and anarchist environmental romanticists.

Contributed by Franklin Cudjoe, Director of Imani: The Centre for Humane Education in Ghana. His email is Franklin Cudjoe . Reprinted with permission from . Originally published on, January 2006.