By Chiara Francavilla*
While Somalia relies on the World Food Programme to deliver food to the area, the country on the Horn of Africa continues to export livestock to neighbouring states. This may seem baffling. But the situation underlines that one needs to look beyond food availability itself to understand hunger caused by food shortages.
MILAN (IDN) – According to data from the Food Security and Nutrition Analysis Unit, the export of cattle, camels and goats from Somalia has not dropped since April 2011, when aid agencies first raised urgent concerns about the levels of malnutrition in the country. The total amount of livestock exported between April and July 2011 is higher than that of the same period in the three preceding years.
“In July, around 317,800 sheep and goats were exported from Bossasso, mostly to the Arabian peninsula. This is higher than last year’s July rate of around 286,700 sheep and goats,” Blake Stabler, analyst at USAID said.
This may seem puzzling: Somalia exports its scarce food resources, while relying on the World Food Program to ship vast quantities of food into the country. However, understanding hunger caused by food shortages requires one to look beyond food availability itself, and to take into account other contributing factors, such as markets.
Local markets play a fundamental role in food security, to the extent that USAID defines food security as a situation in which “all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient food to meet their dietary needs in order to lead a healthy and productive life”.
Markets provide the incentives for people to produce and to sell their product locally, or to transport food to distant locations where there is demand for it. When markets do not function or are poorly interconnected, the supply and demand for food may not match.
Thus, although the quantity of food could be sufficient to feed the population of a country, Stabler explains it may not be “available to those who need it at a price that they can afford”. He continues: “In almost every case of food insecurity, the failure is not the overall availability of food. For example, while red sorghum may not be available in some markets in southern Somalia, theoretically, at a certain price, traders could figure out how to bring red sorghum to those markets from elsewhere. However, that price might be a price no one was able or willing to pay. There would be no effective demand, and consequently the food would not reach southern Somalia.”
Kennedy O. Nanga, a FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN) Food Security Data Analyst, confirms that Kenya and Somalia have experienced similar situations: “Both in Kenya and Somalia we had cases of lack of integrated markets leading to the occurring of localised food scarcity and insecurity even when other regions are in food surpluses.”
The role of governments
Highlighting the importance of markets for food security does not constitute an apology for ‘the Invisible Hand’. The functioning of markets in fact depends on factors that the market itself cannot produce.
These are the so called public goods, for example roads, phone lines and communication means that allow resources like food to circulate. Governments are the institutions designed to provide this infrastructure and to collect information about the national markets. This activity is also important for food security. “Efficient market information collection and dissemination enhances competitiveness through market integration. In this sense, food supply from surplus to deficit regions is enhanced,” Kennedy explains.
In case governments are unwilling or unable to perform these tasks, agencies such as USAID and the World Food Program may intervene: “Governments have the responsibility to respond to the situation of food insecurity and to promote food security. Most of the activities that we do are meant to assist governments in that,” says Joyce Luma, Chief of the World Food Programme Analysis Service, who spoke to Think Africa Press.
The policies adopted by governments or aid agencies “deal primarily with correcting problems in the market and not necessarily problems in the supply of food,” Stabler adds.
“Even in the case of food distribution, the food represents a transfer of income (resources) to the household receiving the ration. This corrects the failure of the market to provide another source of income or replaces the loss of income or food stocks (themselves a form of savings). Programmes like food-for-work or cash-for-work correct the labour market deficit by providing work in areas where traditional forms of day labour have dried up, and thus providing income or food to households that participate.”
However, by trying to ensure food availability for their own population, governments can also implement policies enhancing food insecurity. For example, by blocking the export of agriculture-related products, as Tanzania did in July 2011. “We saw this happening in 2008 as well: when there is a huge demand for food because of a production shortfall in the region, countries like Tanzania try to protect their population, but we don’t recommend closing the border at all, instead, we recommend letting markets function,” Luma comments.
Why is Africa more prone to food insecurity?
In the last Special Issue on Price and Food Security released by the World Food Program Analysis Service, 28 out of the 45 countries “in focus” were African. This begs the question: is Africa more prone to food insecurity? Luma answers this question affirmatively: “Africa tends to rely more on rain-fed agriculture, so the production is highly dependent on the weather pattern. But also the infrastructures are not developed, and this prevent some areas to be fully integrated into the markets.”
Even recognising Africa’s vulnerability, Luma insists that crises only rarely escalate to the level of the current one in Somalia. “In the Horn, even if other countries, such as northern Kenya and southern Ethiopia, are equally affected, we only see famine in Somalia. The reason is the absence of a government and the ongoing conflict, which make it impossible for humanitarian access and leads to markets malfunctioning.
“In fact, in northern Somalia, the Hargeisa region (Somaliland), where some form of government is in place, the situation is not as critical as in southern Somalia. Indeed, we are going to see drought and floods in some other parts of Africa, but I believe that we are not going to see a situation as critical as the one occurring in southern Somalia at the moment.”
*Chiara Francavilla is a graduate in Social Sciences for Globalisation from the University of Milan. Her interests include the politics and economics of Sub-Saharan Africa. This article was first carried by Think Africa Press on September 12, 2011 [IDN-InDepthNews – September 29, 2011]
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