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Re: From economic growth to food security and better nutrition

Peter Steele FAO, Italy

Food/Nutrition Security comes from Investing in Agriculture

The contribution from George Akalemwa of Zambia got me thinking – which is good; for that’s what these debates are all about – so, the questions are these: how can national decision-makers say one thing and do another; how come some of them no longer relate to the ordinary man/woman in the street/bush when the majority people whom they may represent are sometimes really poor? Why don’t they spend more on agriculture?

Kenyans taking a stand

Some of you may have read, seen or heard about the riots that took place in the streets of Nairobi in October this year following the news that national lawmakers – 222 of them – were awarding themselves bonuses valued at US$105,000 for when parliament breaks up next March. Parliamentarians in that country earn of the order US$10,000/month and there are additional earnings from attendance and perks that come with the job. Who would not want to be a politician in Kenya? Fortunately, that man/woman in the street was able to follow events on the basis of local reporting, and the government quickly stepped back from this particular confrontation.

It’s not just the audacity of this kind of decision-making, but the sadness that it represents wherein national leaders may be so detached from the reality of the ordinary people who will never share their kind of wealth. In Kenya today it takes, according to the news reports, more than 60 years for an ordinary man/woman to earn the kind of money that the parliamentarians awarded themselves as a ‘bonus’ – they still had their annual incomes to fall back on. Sure these are taxed, but only at around 25%. How can you be surrounded by so much poverty – ever visited Kibera in Nairobi Africa’s most notorious slum and home to more than 600,000 people – and not see the contradictions of wealth to which George Akalemwa refers.

Check out the Kenyan story - if you don’t already know it – it’s available at a number of websites such as:

Getting the priorities right

As George Alalma says; ‘A hungry country is a dangerous country’ and you don’t have to look to far to see countries in which equality becomes a catch phrase for ‘me first’. And, that link between nutrition security and economic wealth – sure, we’re getting there - but the Kenya/Nairobi example is a pertinent one representing as it does the most successful commercial hub in the Great Lakes Region – 4M people servicing a hinterland of more than 100M with the services, industry, finances and techno-commercial skills that make this a gem of a city going places that can only continue to rise on the natural wealth of the region – including the vitality of the people.

But what if those national decision-makers and their counterparts in the private sector – equally as rich if not richer - do not invest in agriculture; and this is any low-income country anywhere, not simply Kenya/Nairobi. If you don’t invest in agriculture you commit your community to the poverty of out-dated production systems that simply cannot keep pace with demands for more foods, novel foods and foods that entertain. That’s been covered at other times in the FSN debates but the nexus of this particular contribution is the priority required of the national decision-makers and the size of the national budget. If you – as a government - don’t invest in agriculture sufficient to keep pace with changing demands, increased populations, rising wealth and more, then who will?

This is small agro-country anywhere

Take a small country, well, you name one. Designated a ‘middle-income’ country you would reason that the majority people would not be poor – in the sense of abject poverty. But this is not always what it may seem from first impressions, and you need to explore beneath the surface; and there you find the dichotomy of people living in largely subsistence poverty but surrounded by the natural wealth of the soil, land, forests and oceans. Estimated 40% of the population of our example country of 1.1M live below the poverty line as exemplified by the food/nutrition vulnerability of rural children under five:  60% stunted, 45% underweight, etc. Locally grown foods are vulnerable to the low-productivity of traditional agro-production systems, but also to the vagaries of tropical storms that erode crops, soils and land alike. In 2007 30% of the people faced crop losses and starvation that necessitated international aid/food supplies; people died from hunger.

What is agro-investment worth?

Investment in agriculture is a requirements of all government strategic planning, but herein is the paradox of a national budget of US$1.67B in 2012 that continues to allocate <1% (US$16M) to the Ministry of Agriculture for providing agricultural public services, etc., and yet retains almost 50% (US$800M) for use by a centrally-controlled ‘fund. An additional US$9.4M from this fund will be invested in ‘agriculture’. So, this boosts investments to around US$25M. National planning for the next four years had earmarked investments of around US$46M, but these figures don’t stack up given the bulk of public funding required to service that public agricultural sector; only a small proportion of that MAF allocation will find its way into development funds.

People matter

So, how do you handle those nutritional wish-lists? Fortunately for our national managers in our small middle income country, off-shore oil&gas revenues help to boost the national coffers and, at time of reporting, special oil&gas derived accounts contained >US$9B of assets. More than enough to meet national strategic development planning for the current period and Vision 2030; and more than enough to provide the half million food/nutrition vulnerable people with some sense of security. But, like those slums in west-central Nairobi, you can’t develop without carrying the people – all of the people – with you; and, for national managers, this means investing in those socio-economic assets that will help break that cycle of low-input/low-output land productivity.

The challenge facing national managers will be one of setting priorities, maintaining discipline and seeking to achieve stated objectives without becoming side-tracked and, importantly, remaining within the tenants of state legislation for fair governance, transparency, law&order and similar; that wealth can be shared equitably.

Then you get to sharpen those development models with focus upon nutrition (and health, school kids, women, WATSAN, mosquito nets and more).

Peter Steele