TCS Daily

Hungry For Help

By James S. Shikwati - July 31, 2002 12:00 AM

Africa seems to suffer from two crises: a food crisis and an HIV/AIDS crisis. Closer scrutiny reveals they are symptoms of the same political sickness.

Africa accounts for 70% of the global population of people infected with HIV/AIDS and 80% of global deaths from AIDS. In Kenya, over 13% of the adult population is HIV-positive and HIV infection is estimated to result in a 1.3% reduction in annual economic growth.

President Moi observed in 1999 that AIDS is not just a serious threat to social and economic development; it is a threat to the very existence of Kenyans. AIDS has reduced families in Africa to the status of beggars, virtually all the families have been touched by the suffering and death caused by AIDS.

AIDS has ravaged the educational sector reducing the number of experienced teachers, children have been kept out of schools to take care of the sick and support their families and families have been unable to pay fees due to the economic burden imposed by HIV/AIDS.

Southern African countries are faced with the worst food crisis in a decade. Natural calamities, economic crises & political instability, disruption of farming activities have led to food shortages in Zambia, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Mozambique, Swaziland, Lesotho, and Angola. Reports from Swaziland indicate that some people have been left with no choice but to eat soil to "fill their stomachs". Some with very little maize rations left forage for wild fruits as a substitute.

Food shortages have been worse in countries with cases of HIV/AIDS prevalence. Why? Agricultural productivity has been reduced; the number of orphans and elderly people who need care has increased. In essence AIDS is eating away the productive populations of Africa.

In short, the Southern African states are faced with a double tragedy. AIDS has contributed to a 4% fall in economic productivity by cutting worker output by half. The death of 7 million farmers has severely hampered food production. In Burkina Faso alone, 25% of the rural families have had to cut back on farm work.

Western Myopia

While 13 million people are faced with death and starvation, the European Union is set to provide close to 130 million Euros to check the situation. Will the food aid improve the situation? In the short term it may. But the political disease that afflicts African countries will remain to plunge the populations in another catastrophe. In Swaziland, for example, the government purchased an executive jet for the King worth 28 million pounds. In Zimbabwe the government purchased state of the art Mercedes limousines for the ruling elites. The key concerns over the rule of law and good governance will be left unaffected.

Meanwhile, agricultural subsidies in the EU, US and Japan reduce trade with the poor countries thereby indirectly causing harm. Eliminating these subsidies would do far much more than the token aid during a crisis.

Pharmaceutical companies must also be encouraged to play a role in the fight against HIV/AIDS. It should be recognized that pharmaceutical companies spend huge amounts of money to bring about new drugs. The average cost of producing a new drug across different classes of drugs is estimated to be $800 million. Poor countries ought to devise a strategy to attract these firms to market drugs in Africa. Pharmaceutical companies allowed to compete in Africa will lead to accessibility of drugs and lower prices. To scare them away through threats of violating patent rights, as bureaucrats in Western nations frequently do, will see more millions of Africans starve to death due to lack of productivity and direct HIV/AIDS deaths.

Lastly, African governments need to liberalize their information sectors and channels so that people can access ideas from all over the world. One cannot fight HIV/AIDS and at the same time scuttle the media, press freedom and airwaves.

To tackle the hunger in the Southern African countries, it's urgent that the HIV/AIDS equation be addressed. Millions of tons of grain alone will not solve the problem. Making rulers more accountable to their people should make the political system efficient enough to tackle disasters. As countries seek to tackle HIV/AIDS and other calamities its instructive that the political process be streamlined. Policies that enhance freedom and prosperity are needed urgently to reverse the economic tragedy. The African ruling elites ought to be made to understand that they stand to benefit more with a prosperous population than with an impoverished, sickly nation.

The writer is Director of the Inter Region Economic Network [IREN Kenya].

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