Abello: Soul food (for thought)



Oscar Abello

Zambia is a country of farmers. Eighty-five percent of the country works in agriculture. Zambian farms are primarily rain-fed, rivers are scarce and irrigation systems are more than anyone can afford to build. Sometimes farmers dig wells to access near-surface water, and extraction systems are just slightly more complex than a hand pump and a garden hose. Most of what they grow, they eat. The rest is sold to market in order to earn money for other needs. Markets are often hard to reach since most roads aren’t paved.

Despite the millions working in agriculture, the sector accounts for only 18 percent of Zambia’s GDP. Most developing economies face the same situation – a vast majority of the population on a tiny piece of the economic pie. Given these conditions it should come as no surprise, that three quarters of the world’s 854 million undernourished live in rural areas.

Given the world produces enough food to feed every person sufficiently, it should come as a surprise that 10 million people die each year from starvation or malnutrition.

Only 8 percent of those deaths are due to floods, earthquakes, droughts or wars. The other 92 percent of deaths could be prevented, but it is not as easy as just giving food away from countries with too much to give to countries with too little.

Flooding foreign markets with additional food from rich nations undermines the economies of poor nations. It especially hurts the poor farmers of such nations, who make up such a vast percentage of those who suffer from hunger and malnutrition. So many families stay on the farm since labor markets sparingly offer wages sufficient to feed a family. Growing food alongside cash crops is simply the best option available for most poor households.

Food aid is a delicate process that requires more than just giving food away. Aid agencies are now more careful to consider the long-term consequences of food distribution. Food security is the long-term approach to prevent chronic hunger by securing access to a reliable supply of sufficient food; the goal is creating supply chains for markets that tap into the vast number of farmers in poor countries.

Self-sufficiency is not necessarily the goal. It may or may not be the case that a country can grow all the food it needs; for most developing economies, that will not be the case. The goal is simply to facilitate growth at the base of the economic pyramid and, by doing so, the poor can either grow or purchase all the food they need. Such growth also facilitates participation in the global economy by overcoming transactions costs – the obstacles between poor rural farmers and lucrative global markets.

International trade does not just have to take place between rich nations and poor nations. Developing economies stand to gain immensely from trade between each other, but the historic disregard for agricultural development has left this factor out of the equation. Poor countries have the potential to be their own lucrative global market.

In Africa, 95 percent of the population lives below $3,000 annual income, representing 71 percent of African purchasing power according to “The Next Four Billion,” a joint study by the International Finance Corporation and the World Resources Institute.

The trouble is that African countries in the global market tend to see each other as competitors racing to gain market shares of other regions, instead of seeing each other as partners to build regional markets for their poor farmers. It is no help that the United States and other trade partners cultivate such tendencies by encouraging bilateral trade agreements rather than regional integration. Neither does it help that so many goods sold to Africa are small arms.

If you have a feast in front of you next week, think about the supply chains that brought that feast to you. Those chains are something for which we should give thanks, and something every life should have.


Oscar Abello is a senior economics major from Philadelphia, Pa. He can be reached at [email protected].