Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Growth goes up - so does hunger

You wouldn't know there's a food crisis in this country, one of Africa's wealthiest and most stable countries, because it's a silent one. This is not the doom and gloom Africa that we often hear sensationalised in the media as a place of coups, famines and corruption. No, Botswana is a model African state which has lived carefully within its means, had democratically elected governments since independence, and is the world's leading exporter of precious diamonds. Africa's resource rich economies continue to grow. In some regards, Botswana is a shining example of successful resource-financed development. It has carefully husbanded a valuable natural resource, diamonds, and invested the proceeds in infrastructure development and education. Botswana's literacy rate of 86 per cent is one of the highest in the world, and its road and hospital infrastructure is admirable. Its government is ranked as one of the least corrupt by Transparency International, it exports high quality, grass-fed beef and its high-end eco-tourism business is booming.

Yet food prices are up here dramatically since 2011, and the rural and urban poor are hurting badly. "Growth with hunger" could be the rest of continent's conundrum in 25 years time. Botswana imports 90 per cent of its food, which has made it particularly vulnerable to rising global food prices. In 2011, global food prices were the highest on average at any time since they began to be systematically recorded in 1990.

Despite consistent growth, the problem is that Botswana also has one of the most inequitable income distributions in the world, second only to Namibia. Resource-based economies are often undiversified and produce deep inequalities. As such, while Botswana is a prosperous middle income country, the median per capita household income in the capital city, Gaborone, is only $2 per day. With two-thirds of the city's population spending nearly half its income on food, rising food prices present a particular problem. Recent surveys suggest that 63 per cent of households in the capital are severely food insecure, and 21 per cent of households in rural areas sometimes go for a day without eating. Botswana does have ample amounts of food, it's just increasingly expensive.

Botswana, while largely rural at independence in 1966, has been urbanising at a phenomenal rate and now has 60 per cent of its population residing in cities and towns. Although Botswana is ahead of its neighbours on this front, the continent as a whole is the most rapidly urbanising region in the world. The poor are disproportionately dependent on agricultural activity. Even the urban poor often depend on food shared with them by relatives in the rural areas. Climate change, the changing macroeconomic structure of the country and liberalised food markets are killing subsistence, dryland agriculture, the long time safety net of the poor. No amount of good governance and welfare payments to the poor can seem to solve the resulting hunger if the price of imported food continues to rise.

The combination of expensive food and deepening inequality means that hunger will persist even if Africa's leaders do everything "right".


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