Why Does Hunger Still Exist In Africa?

Some of the world's fastest growing economies are in Africa. But hunger is still a widespread reality there, and will be a major topic at this weekend's G8 summit. Host Michel Martin discusses efforts to fight hunger on the continent with USAIDs Tjada McKenna and Mwiza Munthali of the advocacy group TransAfrica.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now, we want to talk about new international efforts to address the issue of hunger in Africa. Representatives of eight of the world's largest economies, the G8 countries, are meeting today, as they do every year, to talk about economic and strategic issues.

This year, President Obama is hosting the meeting at Camp David and he's also invited the leaders of Benin, Ethiopia, Ghana and Tanzania to talk about ways to move toward food security across the continent of Africa, which are some of the world's fastest growing economies, but also still struggles with and security in many places.

Today, the president announced $3 billion in private sector pledges aimed at alleviating hunger and he also pressed other donor countries to make good on previous pledges.

We wanted to talk more about this, so we called Tjada McKenna. She's the deputy coordinator for development for Feed the Future. That's the U.S. government's global hunger and food security initiative. It's run out of USAID.

Also with us, Mwiza Munthali, public outreach director for TransAfrica. That's an advocacy organization that promotes diversity and equity in foreign policy and places a particular focus on Africa and the Caribbean.

Welcome to you both. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

MWIZA MUNTHALI: Thank you. You're welcome.

TJADA MCKENNA: Thank you so much for having us.

MARTIN: Tjada, let me start with you. Food security is one of the main items on the agenda at G8 Summit today. Can you just talk a little bit more about what exactly you think will be discussed?

MCKENNA: Yes. As you know, the G8 leaders have a lot of pressing issues to discuss, such as creating jobs for our economies and stability, but it's really important to note that the leaders are taking almost two hours of their session to focus exclusively on Africa with the African leaders you mentioned. And that topic will focus 100 percent on this issue of food security.

MARTIN: Why those particular countries, if we know?

MCKENNA: So many African nations have really been a leader in teaching us how to come out of hunger in the past few years and have done some of the most innovative work, but these countries in particular - Ghana, Tanzania and Ethiopia. And the president of Benin is also there in his role as president of the African Union.

But those three countries have been particularly innovative and aggressive in solving hunger and they've been particularly active in working to bring in the private sector and having this as a long term pathway to growth that includes women and small farmers who are at the heart of the poverty in their countries.

MARTIN: Mwiza, let me turn to you. I think the question I would have is, why is there still food insecurity on the African continent?

MUNTHALI: Part of it is management. Both indigenous governments, but also the international community's policies. I think one of the biggest challenges of the G8 is that they've made a lot of promises before, not been delivered on, sadly.

MARTIN: Well, could you talk a little bit more about that? Because I am sure there are people who are listening to our conversation who will say that other continents, other places around the world have mastered the food security problem, but it continues to be a long term problem in Africa. And they might say to themselves, what role, really, do we have as part of the international community and addressing this beyond food aid, which is something that you're skeptical of? So could you...

MUNTHALI: Oh, yeah. No.

MARTIN: ...talk a little bit more about that?

MUNTHALI: The international community has a huge role. I mean, when you look at - the biggest problem, I think - we always come into these issues in the middle. We don't look at the fundamental structures of the international trade policies, the international culture policies, of why, even, these countries exist.

The main reason why they existed was they were colonized and, during those times, they were designed to grow a specific crop. Like Kenya, for instance. You had a whole bunch of tea plantations. Ghana, we have cocoa. And so a lot of the agricultural sector is still in the framework of that colonial system.

MARTIN: For export? Designed...

MUNTHALI: For export.

MARTIN: ...for export?

MUNTHALI: For export.

MARTIN: Not necessarily to feed...

MUNTHALI: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...the continent itself.

MUNTHALI: And things you necessarily can't eat. And that's why it's difficult to talk about this issue in just the one soundbite. And then the other problem we also have - countries like China are coming in, buying up land for their own population, which is also affecting negatively for the local population.

So you have these complicated issues and the G8 has to look at it more holistically and not just a food aid, which is not really going to solve the problem.

MCKENNA: I think - one thing I wanted address - something that Mwiza said. It's really important. This year's G8 discussion is not about food aid. It's about smarter investments and working with the African countries to make long term changes so that food aid isn't necessary going forward.

It really is about how they work with the private sector and how they work with donors to drive that long term agricultural growth in the rural communities so that we don't need food aid, so that people are more resilient to the droughts and the floods that we know are going to come.

MARTIN: Mwiza, could you give us an example of something you feel gives a sense of the kind of policy direction that you would like to see the international community take, since you are an advocate, so I'm going to ask you to advocate for a minute.

MUNTHALI: People have been farming for centuries, but the biggest problem has been - the governments have not done a good job of talking to the small farmers, of seeing what their needs are. So I think they need to be brought more into the table as the G8 discusses this issue.

MARTIN: Tjada, I'm going to ask you to give us the final word. I think many of us have been talking about food insecurity in Africa throughout our entire adult lives. I don't know about you. I remember, as a child, talking about collecting money in UNICEF for Biafra.

MCKENNA: Yes.

MARTIN: And so I'd like to ask. Will our children still be talking about this or do you envision that the question of food security will be addressed in our lifetime?

MCKENNA: We think this is a solvable challenge and that's exactly why we're devoting the whole session to it. There was a very successful green revolution in the '50s and '60s that went across Latin America and South Asia and now it is Africa's time to do that.

African farmers, they want choices. They should be able to choose between having an organic farm or using modern technologies and they want to be able to provide a better future for their children. They want to be able to do less work by hand.

And so, working together, working with companies - both local companies and also international companies - they want to be able to work with them and their governments want that investment. They want that local investment. They want that international investment because they know that's what their small holders need for sustainable business and so that they're not continually relying on subsidies or foreign aid and so that's what we are going to accomplish. This will be a thing of the past.

MARTIN: Tjada McKenna is USAID's deputy coordinator for development at Feed the Future. Mwiza Munthali is the public outreach director for TransAfrica. That's an advocacy organization to promote diversity and equity in foreign policy with a particular focus on the African world and the Caribbean. And they were both kind enough to join us from our studios here in Washington, D.C.

Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

MUNTHALI: Thank for having us.

MCKENNA: Thank you for having us.

MUNTHALI: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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