Growth hobbled by misplaced priorities

Bitange Ndemo

Africa will not meet her targets of the millennium development goals (MDGs) this year. Two of the most critical goals – eradication of extreme poverty and hunger, and ensuring environmental sustainability – are key to attaining all the eight goals.

Our challenge is not lack of resources. Instead, ignorance is the enemy we must fight before we look to new targets.

Our continent is exceedingly blessed with resources but we perform poorly in all indices. Gro Intelligence and the Food and Agriculture Organisation’s calculations show that over the past 20 years sub-Saharan Africa’s share of world food exports have dropped from 11 per cent in 1987 to under three per cent in 2012.

While the region had a $500 million (Sh46 billion) trade surplus in food during the late 1980s, there is currently a $12.5 billion (Sh1.1 trillion) deficit.

From a net exporter to a net importer of food, we have failed to exploit Africa’s agricultural potential as we face the effects of sustained food insecurity and extreme poverty.
A United Nations Economic Commission for Africa 2012 report suggests that food security will remain a challenge in Africa until we deal with the root causes of the problem.


Low production brought about by low productivity and the inability of people to adequately access food due to poverty are the core challenges.

The fact is that 239 million people (30 per cent of Africa’s population) of the world’s one billion undernourished live in Africa.

We should not be hearing the excuses we read in reports that the region is still recovering from the 2008 financial and food crises. The hike in oil prices contributed to high food prices in many parts of the world.

Political instability in Africa, coupled with adverse weather conditions and lack of agricultural inputs played a role in the persistent food insecurity this year.

African countries need to shape their policy responses around increased agricultural productivity and production, development of markets and building resilience of vulnerable populations.

It is a shame that after years of toying with the MDGs, we cannot address extreme poverty in Africa. Several research findings, for example, show that clean water, improved sanitation and hygiene for women can lead to more than 30 per cent improvement in agricultural productivity.

These were some of the specific targets for attaining environmental sustainability. Evidence shows that environmental sustainability correlates positively with reduction in extreme poverty and child mortality.

It does not require earth-shaking budgets to effectively address the problems of water and sanitation. Indeed the Constituency Development Fund is adequate if we prioritise our development agenda.

Just as the global economic dynamics begin to change in our favour, something crops up to block our progress. Consider the fact that the financial crisis is over and the price of oil is slumping.

We can almost predict that Africa has a greater opportunity to make strides in addressing her perennial problems. But even as hope shines, our leaders come up with new issues that delay our march towards a better future.

The election of President Robert Mugabe to head the African Union is one such irresponsible decision that draws us into unnecessary confrontation with other nations, and his inaugural speech just did that.

We must get to the point where we abandon liberation songs and chest- thumping and focus on real issues affecting our people.

More than 80 per cent of Africans living today were not around during the struggle for Independence. Distractions of the rear view mirror-type should not stop us from driving Africa forward and out of extreme poverty.

Even Independence heroes like Mzee Jomo Kenyatta taught us to forgive but not forget the past. In that spirit, we must not forget what colonialism did, but we must also look into the future and find ways of embracing inclusive co-operation as a strategy for sustaining markets for our goods and services. Europe is our primary market for cut flowers, tea, coffee and tourism.

The AU should concern itself with growing intra-African trade, conflict resolution and eradicating the menace of political instability as a broader strategy for eliminating extreme poverty and the attainment of the MDGs.

By now, the AU should have strengthened its peace-keeping efforts in the Horn of Africa as well as conflict prone nations in central and west Africa.

Jonathan Glennie of the Guardian was right when he said, “The saddest thing in the world is not poverty; it’s loss of dignity.” Every time the number of people in extreme poverty increases in Africa, our self-esteem is equally stunted.

The writer is an associate professor at the University of Nairobi’s Business School and a former PS in the ministry of Information and Communications.