EU’s food imports pose ‘tricky balance’ for hungry Africans

Drought-stricken Africans. [Stuart Price/United Nations]

This article is part of our special report Agriculture.

SPECIAL REPORT / East Africa was hit by its worst drought in half a century last year, leaving millions of people in Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia hungry and triggering an outpouring of emergency aid from the European Union and other major donors.

Yet while relief workers fought to avert a drought-induced famine in Africa, packets of Kenyan green beans and avocados and buckets of decorative flowers from Ethiopia were available in European markets, the result of special EU trade treatment designed to help Sub-Saharan African countries grow out of poverty.

The 2011 scenario is repeated on nearly an annul basis in a region prone to climate calamities and famine and reflects an oddity in the fight against poverty and hunger in Sub-Saharan Africa, the world’s poorest region and main recipient of EU development aid.

“It’s easier to know the demands of the market in Europe than we do in our own neighbourhood,” said Mohamed Ibn Chambas, who heads the African, Caribbean and Pacific Group of States, known as the ACP, which works with the EU to coordinate trade and development assistance.

“In a particular [African] region you can have an acute shortage of goods, whereas next door you can have a bumper crop,” Chambas said in Brussels.

The EU imports 40% of Sub-Saharan Africa’s agricultural exports – including nuts, fresh-cut flowers, tea, coffee, citrus fruits and vegetables – Commission figures show. Trade has nearly doubled in the decade since Europe began forging closer economic ties with ACP states under EU commitments to boost trade and aid, with exports to the EU exceeding those between African nations.

Pressure for economic development

The south-north food flow has created willing foreign markets for African farmers, while home-grown goods aren’t getting to other Africans who are surviving on international relief aid flown in during food shortages.

Tim Benton, a University of Leeds professor of population ecology who serves as Britain’s Champion for Global Food Security, says it’s “a very tricky balance to negotiate.”

“It is difficult to imagine the sense in the system, because when we import, say, green beans from Kenya, we’re taking imbedded water from a drought-prone country, and then we’re putting into our supermarkets, into our fridges and then we’re throwing it way uneaten,” Benton told EURACTIV by telephone, saying his comments reflected his personal views.

“But equally, when you talk to governments down there they say, ‘we need the money’. So in a sense, that’s a very tricky balance to negotiate because by those trade deals you are helping them to develop economically, but at the same time in the long run it cannot be sustainable and that as population grows, and as climate change impacts increasingly happen, it can’t continue in the way it is at the moment.”

At the height of the 2011 East Africa drought, estimates of the number of people dependent on foreign aid ranged from 10 million to more than 13 million.

Development experts speaking last week at a conference organised by the Friends of Europe think-tank in Brussels said agriculture holds great potential for Africa’s development. With nearly half of the more than 800 million Sub-Saharan Africans living below the UN’s poverty line of less than $1.25 per day, farming is seen as a way to create jobs, feed a growing population, while also providing lucrative exports of food and biofuel crops.

Promoting regional commerce

To do so, the conference experts said, the continent needs to improve land productivity through fertilisers and crop nutrition technology; irrigation and water storage practices; education and technical training; and financing opportunities for small farmers.

Yet while Europe turned towards building a common agricultural market out of the ruins of the Second World War, much of Sub-Saharan Africa is more focused exporting its agriculture and raw materials to non-Africans.

Poor transportation connections, high tariffs, security barriers and primitive information-sharing on market needs contribute to the problem, ACP’s Chambas told EURACTIV, making it easier to ship goods to Europe by air or sea.

Leaders of the 53-nation African Union have approved an “action plan” to change this by promoting regional commerce and providing a more inviting manufacturing climate. The AU plan calls for the free movement of people and commerce, and multinational cooperation to address the sub-continent’s pitiful infrastructure.

Regional trade blocs in the west, south and east have led to easier trade and infrastructure investments – though Chambas said central Africa remains largely outside the picture.

But poverty campaigners like ActionAid say African farmers face other challenges, including foreign governments buying or leasing land for farm export production and production of biofuels. Greenpeace, Oxfam and African-based rights groups have complained that these projects sap water and cultivatable land from needy Africans.

Effect of climate change

Climate change is a big unknown when it comes to developing internal as well as foreign markets. While efforts have been made through the EU’s 2008 Food Facility and the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals to reduce malnutrition and poverty in Africa, perverse weather events such as periods of severe drought and extreme flooding create uncertainty for the future of farming.

Lies Craeynest, Oxfam International’s EU climate change policy advisor, acknowledges that EU aid and poverty-fighting efforts have led to gains in needy nations.

But, she said, climate change is likely to have major consequences for agriculture and food production. “What this will mean for many of the people living in rural areas, a large majority of them still being small-scale food producers, may actually mean a reversal of some of these achievements, particularly if you look at the longer time frame.”

“We stand on the brink of a truly historic opportunity to make a decent life for all a reality and to bring lasting growth and prosperity to the whole of Africa, Andris Piebalgs, European commissioner for Development, said in a speech at a Friends of Europe conference on 13 November.

He added that “growth is great as a key driver for development, but it is not a cure-all. If it is combined with good governance, transparency, international finance and international expertise, our partner countries will have all the tools they need to deliver inclusive and sustainable development to their people.

“And we will be well on our way to eradicating desperate poverty in our lifetime. I know that such an aspiration can be realised. And we can realise it together.

The EU is Africa’s biggest trading partner, accounting for about 35% of imports and exports, with China and the United States competing for second. The EU absorbs about 40% of Sub-Saharan Africa’s agricultural exports, compared to 25% within Africa.

But foreign commerce doesn’t necessarily translate into prosperity.

A decade of economic improvement and growing south-north trade “has not been translated into commensurate reductions in unemployment and poverty,” says the 2011 Economic Report on Africa.

With notable exceptions, many African countries offer uninviting climates for investment because of bureaucracy, protectionism, mercurial politics and primitive infrastructure. Rudimentary trans-national and trans-continental transport and banking also hamper commerce.

International organisations

European Union

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