For decades, the dominant image of Africa has been that it is poor and helpless. This image is wrong. Most people in Africa may be poor, but the continent itself is one of the richest in terms of natural resources. Far from being helpless and dependent on our help, Africa pays more money to rich countries than it receives in aid. We need to face up to the uncomfortable truth: Africa is aiding us.
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Since the big famines of the 1980s and 90s, we’ve been bombarded with images of graphic starvation. Since Live Aid, we’ve been told that there is not enough food in Africa and that the answer is charity. Just £3 a month can buy food, seeds, a water well, a blanket. We, it is inferred, are the answer to Africa’s problems. Our kindness and pity can help because Africa lacks the capacity to help itself.
But this is actually the opposite of the case. In fact, it’s Africa that helps us.
Hunger in a world of plenty
It is true that many people in Africa – and across the world – are hungry. The UN estimates that 805 million people worldwide do not have enough to eat. It’s also true that over two thirds of people in sub-Saharan Africa do not have access to electricity, and that almost 40 per cent lack clean water. But this is not because there is not enough food, energy and water in the world.
Enough food is produced in the world to feed 12 billion people, according to the UN World Food Programme.
Some of the countries with the lowest rates of access to energy are the ones most endowed with energy resources. More than half of the population of oil-rich Nigeria lack basic access to electricity.
As for water, there is no correlation between the parts of the world where there is water scarcity and the places where people do not have access to clean water. Water is physically scarce in the southern USA and the Middle East, but it’s in the water- rich areas of sub-Saharan Africa where there is the lowest level of access to clean water.
What about population? Some people blame the rise in global population from 2 billion in 1927 to over 7 billion today for poverty. Advocates of aggressive population control tend not to worry about populations in Europe and North America. Conveniently, it’s always population growth in Asia and Africa that is depicted as the problem. But it would take 13 Bangladeshis to use as many resources as just a single American. So the problem isn’t population, it’s the huge amount of resources that wealthy countries use.
Poverty: the price of corporate power
We have enough of everything to go round. Africa doesn’t need ‘our’ help and nor does any other continent. So the real reason why billions of people are hungry, thirsty and lack electricity stems from the way the global economy works.
Unfair distribution stems from an unfair allocation of power, with a small handful of global corporations having huge power over the food system. Just ten agribusiness companies control 75 per cent of the seed industry, 55 per cent of the fertiliser industry and 95 per cent of the pesticide industry.
The result is huge power over what gets produced, by whom, how they get treated and how much they get paid for it. Just 4 per cent of profit in the pineapple industry goes into wages for plantation workers, while 79 per cent goes to the multinational traders and retailers.
And because feeding the poor is never as profitable as feeding the rich, these companies ensure that food is exported to more lucrative markets. Former UN food expert Olivier De Schutter was clear that such a globalised food industry means that the “luxury tastes of the richest parts of the world [are] allowed to compete against the satisfaction of the basic needs of the poor.”
Speculators make this situation worse by betting on the price of key food commodities such as maize, wheat and barley. This causes price spikes that mean more people are unable to afford imported food.
Given all of this, you’d think governments would seek to reduce the power of big agribusiness. But the UK government has put £600 million into supporting the New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition, a scheme that supports big agribusiness corporations in African markets.
Around the world, it’s multinational corporations and their allies that are standing in the way of real progress. The way to ensure that everyone has enough food, water and energy is to change the way these resources are distributed. Control has to be taken away from the corporate monopolists and given to communities through alternative ideas such as food sovereignty – a framework that guarantees the right to food.