Food Relief For Africa 'Insufficient,' GAO Says

By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 29, 2008

Efforts by the United States and multilateral agencies including the World Bank to reduce hunger in sub-Saharan Africa have been "insufficient," with foreign aid to the region failing to flow into agricultural development projects vital to the ability of poor countries to feed themselves, according to a report to be released this morning by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

Issued ahead of a major United Nations summit in Rome next week to address the global food crisis, the report suggests that the failure to invest in African agriculture has contributed to the problems unfolding in the region as food prices soar worldwide. High dependence on imported food has been blamed for Africa's worse spike in hunger in years, with skyrocketing prices sparking unrest and food shortages in a number of nations, including Mauritania and Somalia.

The report, a draft copy of which was obtained by The Washington Post, additionally describes U.S. aid efforts in sub-Saharan Africa as fragmented and misdirected. It says, for instance, that a Bush administration initiative to "end hunger in Africa" launched in 2002 effectively amounted to a repackaging of existing programs and came with no new funding.

At the same time, USAID, the main humanitarian aid arm of the U.S. government, has shifted away from promoting better crops, focusing instead on providing emergency food aid "to the detriment of actions designed to address the fundamental causes of these emergencies, including low agricultural productivity and other factors."

The GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, additionally faulted multilateral lenders for dropping the ball on agricultural development in Africa over the past two decades. The portion of foreign development assistance to Africa earmarked for agriculture fell from a peak of 15 percent in the early 1980s to around 4 percent in 2006. During that period, agricultural productivity in the sub-Saharan region lost ground, with yields failing to keep pace with improvements in other developing countries worldwide.

Without question, the report says, the leadership in sub-Saharan African nations also bear a portion of the blame for failing to boost agricultural spending. Although a host of African nations pledged in 2003 to dedicate 10 percent of government spending on agriculture, few have achieved that goal, according to the report.

Taken together, those factors, the report concluded, are jeopardizing United Nations' goals aimed at halving the total proportion of the world's population that is undernourished by 2015.

"To see that chronic hunger in Africa is getting worse despite our actions shows that the international community must retool its strategy to combat it," said Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.), chairman of the subcommittee on African affairs, who led the request for the report. "Rather than simply sending more food aid to Africa, the U.S. and the international community need to address the factors that contribute to food insecurity."

A spokeswoman for USAID said the agency was aware of the report but said it would decline comment until its official release this morning. The report comes on the heels of another released by the GAO last year sharply criticizing U.S. food aid programs. That report called them "inherently inefficient" because they rely on the sale of American-grown food that is costly to transport overseas, as opposed to food purchased closer to the troubled regions themselves.

Some multilateral agencies have admitted error in their failures to prioritize agricultural development and have sought to address the problem. Martin Nieuwkoop, the World Bank's Senior Agricultural Economist in the Africa Region, said there is recognition at the agency that lending has wrongly shifted away from agriculture, in part because of requests from poor nations for more money for health care and education. Complacency brought about by years of relatively low food prices also has been a factor.

With prices for corn, wheat, rice and other staples soaring, however, the bank is again taking major steps to re-emphasize agriculture. This year, the World Bank will spend $450 million on sub-Saharan farming, a figure that is set to jump to at least $800 million in less than two years.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company