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Op-Ed

Democratic Governance Is Critical to Averting Famines in Africa

Julius Agbor and Nelipher Moyo

During the last two decades, African countries have overwhelmingly embraced multiparty rule and in 2011, over 27 general elections were scheduled throughout the region. At first glance, it appears democracy has taken root and with it, expectations of improved standards of living. Sadly, this has not been the case for many African countries as human calamities imposed by disease, extreme hunger, malnutrition, and worse still, famines, persist. With the ‘advances’ in multiparty democracy, how is one to then understand the correlation between democratic advancement and the persistence of famines in Africa?

During the last two decades, African countries have overwhelmingly embraced multiparty rule and in 2011, over 27 general elections were scheduled throughout the region. At first glance, it appears democracy has taken root and with it, expectations of improved standards of living. Sadly, this has not been the case for many African countries as human calamities imposed by disease, extreme hunger, malnutrition, and worse still, famines, persist. With the ‘advances’ in multiparty democracy, how is one to then understand the correlation between democratic advancement and the persistence of famines in Africa?
 
The answer lies in acknowledging that most African countries are still in the process of consolidating their democracies. Indeed, Africa is the only continent in the 21st century that has experienced, and continues to experience, mass mortality due to food crisis, with four countries—Ethiopia in 2000, Malawi in 2002, Niger in 2005, and Somalia in 2011—officially attaining the stage of famine.

This reality seems to contradict Amartya Sen’s theory that no functioning multiparty democracy can experience famine because democratic institutions—regular free and fair elections, independent courts and legislatures, free press and vibrant civil society—are all effective mechanisms of upholding the basic rights of citizens, including the right to food (“Development as Freedom,” 1999:178). Democracy also offers vulnerable citizens the opportunity to vote out incompetent governments that fail to deliver improved well-being to their constituents. Indeed, as de Waal in “Democratic Political Process and the Fight against Famine” (2000:12) asserts, ‘fully functioning democracies do provide protections against famine, but weak democracies might not’.
 
Evidence suggests most of the famines recently witnessed in Africa have been largely due to institutional failures resulting from the lack of broad-based accountable governance and much less to market or production failures. This governance deficiency often manifests itself through imperfect institutions, which either fail to reallocate production surplus away from food-surplus areas to food-deficit ones within the same country, or are incapable of effectively providing food price support to vulnerable citizens. Although the decline in food availability is almost inevitably witnessed immediately before all major famines, it has not been the main precursor. If met with timely and effective responses, declining food availability can be prevented from degenerating into a famine. Usually, effective anti-corruption mechanisms and efficient public interventions in agricultural support systems and extension services, effectively address food availability declines in the build-up to a famine. This was lacking in the Malawian famine of 2002, where government failures exacerbated production and donor response failures thereby precipitated an else-while avoidable human catastrophe.

Note that in the year preceding the famine, the Malawian government, faced with high deficits and the need for fiscal consolidation, yielded to International Monetary Fund (IMF) recommendations to export all of its 180,000 tons of grain stocked in its Strategic Grain Reserve (SGR). Contrary to what many believe, the destocking of the SGR in itself was not the major cause of the famine. Instead of exporting the grain for much needed foreign exchange, rent-seeking Malawian bureaucrats hoarded the grain until prices escalated beyond the purchasing power of the average citizen—resulting in famine. Thus, had there not been a governance problem, the famine in Malawi could have been averted. Similarly, ineffective government support structures to prevent the decline in food availability or, at least, to respond timely in the wake of decline, have resulted in famines elsewhere in Niger, Somalia and Ethiopia.

While a range of factors, arguably exogenous to government control—such as climate change and international donor response—are crucial in the famine prevention strategy, emphasis must be placed on accountable democratic governance as an effective mechanism for averting famines in Africa. An anti-famine political contract between citizens and the state, which democracy promotes, can be effective at addressing declining livestock/grain terms of trade shocks that frequently challenge poor households.

A functioning democracy also offers additional checks against inappropriate national policy choices. For instance, the abolishment of agricultural buffer stocks and the elimination of farm subsidies would normally be scrutinized by civil society, non-governmental organizations and the parliament before being implemented by executive powers. Unfortunately, these underlying institutions—independent legislatures and courts, free press and vibrant civil society—are crucially deficient in most of Sub-Saharan Africa. Furthermore, even where these institutions are enshrined in the national constitutions, the political will to render them effective is usually absent.

So far, the short-term response of international donors and humanitarian organizations has helped mitigate the effect of famines in Africa but the strategy to prevent the next famine lies in demanding effective governance institutions and supporting institutions with similar goals on the continent.

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