Sam Kiley: No Need for West to Feed Africans

The Horn of Africa is in the grip of the worst drought for 47 years. Some 23 million people are threatened with starvation. When you see children on TV with distended bellies keening over their dying parents, it would be inhuman not to be moved to tears. But do them a favour. Sit on your hands.

African aid organisations have been in the grip of a hysterical number inflation game since the hideous images of the Ethiopian famine were brought to our screens 25 years ago today by the BBC's Michael Buerk. For every year that has passed the scale of Africa's problems seem to have grown.

Aid organisations and the media have inflated the scale of subsequent horror, regardless of the truth. This year the International Rescue Committee released data from its Democratic Republic of the Congo mortality survey. "Congo's war and aftermath have killed 5.4 million," The Washington Post yelled, quoting the IRC. Humbug.

The IRC isn't deliberately lying, neither was the Post. But the idea. that 5.4 million people have died as a result of war in Congo is nonsense. It needs to be peddled to help to generate funds to relieve the real and hideous suffering of Congo's population, but nonsense it remains. As the IRC admits: "Less than 10 per cent of all deaths were due to violence, with most attributed to easily preventable and treatable conditions such as malaria, diarrhoea, pneumonia and malnutrition."

The IRC is saying, really, that the Congolese are dying because they are poor. Recent work by Andre Lambert and Louis Lohle-Tart shows that the rising mortality rate predates the wars there. But combine "war" with "millions dead" and you have a donation-winning headline. We all do it. We use statistics to highlight the horrors in Africa to drive home the unbelievable scale of the continent's problems. But that's the problem: the scale has become unbelievable.

Twenty-three million? From my experience of two decades' reporting from Africa, I can say with absolute confidence that this is humbug. Did anyone count them? No.

Oxfam says 3.8 million Kenyans, more than 3.8 million Somalis, and 13.7 million Ethiopians "need aid". Implicit in this is that they could perish through lack of food. In Kenya it might be possible to make this guess. But in Somalia, which has been in a state of anarchy since 1991?

But even if 23 million people do face starvation, please don't reach for your cheque book. Foreign aid is the principal reason for Africa's accumulated agony.

According to Oxfam: "Food aid saves lives, but it crowds out other ... initiatives that support communities' strategies to prevent the next drought from becoming a disaster." Exactly. If we send help now, we'll be killing more people later because more people will be bred and no one will think to save any crops to feed them.

Kenya is having a terrible time. But it would not be doing so if the breadbasket in the west of the country had not been torn apart by ethnic violence. If the agricultural outreach programmes, which helped farmers to improve productivity through the 1960s and 1970s, had not collapsed, if the government's milk and beef marketing system was not ruined by corruption then Kenya would feed itself even in times of drought.

Oxfam reveals in its latest paper, Band Aids and Beyond, that between 70 and 92 per cent of US aid to Ethiopia has been food aid — and almost all of that was the surplus product of American farms. So Ethiopia has had no need to feed itself.

Worse still, Ethiopia and Eritrea spent billions that should have been used to develop self-sufficiency between 1998 and 2000 on a border war over a mess of barren rocks. They could do this because we in the wealthy North fed the populations of both countries.

So, what to do? For an answer I turn to Birham Woldu, who survived the (man-made) 1984 famine in Ethiopia.

"Constantly shipping food from places like the US is costly, uneconomic, and can encourage dependency," she writes in the Oxfam report. "We are a big country and when there is famine in one part of the country, there is plenty in another. So we need better infrastructure and communications to move food around to where it is needed. Above all we need education."

If they want to badly enough, the Ethiopians can sort out their own roads. So that leaves education. We can help Africans to help themselves by donating to charities that ring-fence funding for education. If they don't do it, don't give. Mark all cheques "not for food" if you have to.

With education Africans can and will rid themselves of the corrupt leaders that we have kept in power through foreign aid for decades. Educated Africans will bring an end to a dangerous cycle of humbug.

Kiley is a former Africa bureau chief of The Times

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