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Signs of hope for alleviating hunger and poverty in Africa

Despite the stagnation of economic development in much of sub-Saharan Africa, there are signs of hope for alleviating hunger and poverty in various African countries.

These signs of hope depend on increasing democratization, improving governance and strengthening the position of farmers, among other things. Perhaps this can lead to the highly desirable “green” revolution, which has already taken place in Asia and has led to an strong impulse to growth, but has difficulty getting started in Africa. This was the theme of Prof. Arie Kuyvenhoven's oration on the occasion of his retirement as Professor of Development Economics at Wageningen University on 13 September 2007.

Development economists have ascertained that growth in the agricultural sector in developing countries has a much stronger effect on income development than growth in non-agricultural sectors: 1% growth in the GNP from the agricultural sector leads to a 2.5% improvement in income, while 1% growth of the GNP in other sectors leads to less than 1% income growth, stated Professor Van Kuyvenhoven in his oration, Africa, Agriculture, Aid. This explains the economic development in Asia. On that continent, a green revolution occurred which was stimulated by the government, with a strong role for the market, and which was based on the phenomenon of the smallholder farmer. As a result, these countries could achieve independence in food production. International aid therefore played an important role in their economic development.

Poor governance
Virtually all these factors are absent in Africa, which continues to explain the general economic stagnation on that continent. Factors such as climate, geography and large-scale prevention of diseases such as malaria and AIDS do not affect economic development as much as was previously assumed. It appears that poor governance and weak social structures in African countries play a much larger role in slowing economic growth, said Kuyvenhoven. Most governments not only have a weak political power base and rely on a small urban elite, which also absorbs most of the government funding, but the political stability in those countries is often based on the non-intervention principle and foreign aid. Consequently, the majority of the population is excluded from modernization. In contrast, Asiatic governments – which are also not very democratic – aimed to acquire broad support from the population, which then became involved in the development process.

Kuyvenhoven cited figures to illustrate how the economic development in Africa has lagged behind that of Asia. In general, Africans living south of the Sahara are hardly better off than they were at the time of their independence 50 years ago. At that time, the average income in Africa was twice that of Asia. Now the average incomes in South Asia are significantly above those in Africa, and those in East Asia are three times as high. A similar trend can be seen in agricultural yields; in Asia, the yields are 2.5 to 4.5 times higher than those in Africa. The lack of attention of African governments for the rural area and agriculture is also illustrated in the corresponding government spending, including the investments in research and development. In Africa, these amounts are lower than ever: less than 7% of GNP, compared to 11% in Asia and nearly 13% in Latin America.

Despite the depressing picture of the state of African agriculture in general, Kuyvenhoven referred to the many initiatives, meetings and changes that are taking place at many locations on the continent. These are leading to far-reaching improvements in government structure, more transparency and increased participation, accompanied by technical progress and economic development. He believes this is related to the emergence of a new generation of intelligentsia and politicians. They are turning away from the old political culture of patronage and are serving a broader range of interests. In addition, more and more agricultural and yield-increasing technologies are becoming available which are adapted to African conditions. African governments are becoming increasingly aware that these technologies cannot be applied without supportive interventions.

Moreover, international aid, which until 1990 almost entirely missed the mark, has clearly become more effective. This is because the "architecture" of this aid is much better adapted to alleviating poverty and supporting attempts to improve governance; as a result, this aid is now contributing to economic growth. Kuyvenhoven noted that the economic development in Africa is now about 25 years – or one generation – behind that of Asia, but has a comparable growth rate. This offers a good perspective for the further development of Africa.

Jac Niessen | alfa
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