The Need for Help
One hundred years after colonial powers divvied up Africa to suit their own purposes, the continent finds itself in a state of permanent crisis. Twenty-nine of the world’s thirty-six poorest nations are found south of the Sahara, and twenty-five of them are now urgently appealing for emergency aid to ward off famine. Some 150 million people (one third to one half of the population of sub-Saharan Africa) face massive food shortages, a lack of adequate health care, and a dwindling supply of water.
The crisis goes deeper than the present drought. Of all the continents, Africa has the lowest per capita income, lowest economic growth rate, lowest literacy and life expectancy. It is also burdened with the least political stability (more than seventy leaders in twenty-nine nations have been overthrown by assassination or coup d’état in the past twenty-five years) and most severe environmental problems.
Africa’s economy was designed to keep the colonial powers well-stocked. After achieving independence, most African countries adopted models of economic development that did not safeguard the best features of traditional African societies and attempt to build from that base: what emerged instead were economic strategies to reshape Africa in the image of the Western world in only ten to twenty years. This hurried, haphazard effort completely misunderstood the process of Western industrialization and led many African economies on the road to ruin.
To pay back the loans taken out to finance rapid industrial growth, African nations turned to cash crops for export. This meant growing food on more marginal lands. But increased cropping for export pushed the small farmer onto delicate soils, suitable only for grazing. As the years went by, the soil produced less and less, and was soon exhausted. Superimposed on this pattern came the drought, which now affects one third of the African population. Soils left brittle and bare by overgrazing and drought are being swept away, much as they were in the Dust Bowl in the United States during the 1930s. Every year the Sahara expands by a few million acres.
As a result of all of this, while Africa basically could feed itself in the 1950s, today it grows only half its own food and must import over 20 million tons annually. In such an environment, the poorest and weakest of Africans (especially mothers and children) have become increasingly vulnerable to setbacks such as drought. It is not nature alone that is causing this crisis but the social and economic pressures that prevent the poor from withstanding the rigors of nature. Today there are 5 million refugees in Africa (half of them children) and over 25 million people in need of immediate assistance. While the media have focused on Ethiopia—where the greatest number are starving—this tragedy knows no borders: there are millions in peril in Angola, Burkina Faso, Chad, Ghana, Mali, Mauritania, Mozambique, Niger, Somalia, Sudan, and Uganda.
Malnutrition lowers resistance to disease, creating a downward spiral of ill health and eventually death. Pouring in food aid is only a partial and temporary step. To be sure, Africa needs immediate relief—food and water and medicine. It needs intermediate aid, such as seeds and fertilizer, farming tools, and irrigation implements. It also needs long-term development projects that respect African cultures and seek to make Africans more self-sufficient. USA for Africa was born out of all these needs and will provide help on each of these levels.