High-ranking U.S. officials have been trooping to Africa recently, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken next up with a visit to Ethiopia and Niger this week. A core part of their mission is to chip away at some African governments’ reluctance to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine by persuading them that the conflict is deepening the continent’s severe hunger problem.
While U.S. officials are right to highlight Russia’s culpability in the African food crisis, the hunger now gripping parts of the continent is primarily the result of decades of mismanagement of agricultural resources and broader economies. Until African governments fix that core problem, they will remain vulnerable to the next global shock, a point American officials should also convey during their visits.
More than 300 million Africans — roughly equivalent to the population of the U.S. — are today going hungry. Countries such as Somalia, where nearly half the population will soon be facing severe food shortages, are being particularly hard-hit.
Along with drought, high oil prices, violent instability in Africa and disrupted global supply chains, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has accelerated the crisis. Before the war, the two countries combined to export nearly a third of the globe’s wheat supply. Many African states are net food importers, and some were particularly reliant on Ukraine or Russia: Egypt, for instance, imported about 75 percent of its wheat from the two countries.
Compounding the pain is the fact that Russia is the world’s largest exporter of fertilizers and their precursors. Its exports of these crucial agricultural goods have plummeted, making fertilizer unaffordable for many African farmers.
In July last year, Ukraine, Russia and Turkey signed the Black Sea Grain Initiative, which was designed to allow more food and fertilizer from Ukraine and Russia to reach the global market. It has been modestly successful but is insufficient to meet the scale of the challenge, and could be disrupted at any moment by the war.
While exacerbating the food crisis is another crime for which Moscow should answer, some African states’ overreliance on food imports is a result of how poorly they have managed their own agricultural resources and broader economies. Many have fertile lands but massively underutilize them. The price of bread and other basics provoke periodic protests in Sudan, yet the country has swaths of some of Africa’s richest agricultural land. The Democratic Republic of the Congo is also agriculturally well-endowed while nearly 30 million of its citizens go hungry.
South Sudan has the land to be Africa’s breadbasket, but many of its people teeter on the brink of starvation.
Overall, Africa contains about 60 percent of the world’s arable and unexploited land, but it has been a net food importer since the 1970s, long before anyone dreamed of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, COVID-19 or the current round of drought.
Furthermore, African countries generally fare poorly in measures of economic openness and competitiveness. Indices that measure such things have their limitations, but they consistently find that the great majority of African countries are not providing environments that attract investment, encourage the growth of business and facilitate the easy movement of goods and labor.
The good news is that some of the fixes — such as better protecting property rights or liberalizing trade — are known, however hard they might be to implement in certain cases. And while some African countries’ geographies make it likely that they will always be reliant on imports for food, they still have near-term options for reducing their vulnerability to the next global shock. They could, for example, partner more closely on agricultural technology with the U.S., a world leader in the industry, or with a country like Israel that has successfully farmed arid landscapes for decades.
However, until they undertake the serious reforms necessary to provide the regulatory environments, rule of law and other elements that facilitate the growth of free markets and trade, African governments — and most especially their people — will remain at the mercy of wars and other disruptions in distant places like Ukraine.
Joshua Meservey is a senior fellow at Hudson Institute where he studies great power competition in Africa, counterterrorism, and African geopolitics. He is on Twitter at @JMeservey. Jacob Pritts is a researcher with a background in economics and foreign affairs.
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