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Regional themes > Agriculture Last update: 2020-11-27  

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Participatory Ecological Land-use Management (PELUM) Association Practical Action

The crisis in African agriculture: A more effective role for EC aid?

Participatory Ecological Land-use Management (PELUM) Association, Practical Action


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Executive summary

Poverty and hunger on the increase in Africa – aid still has an important role

Africa is the only region in the world where poverty and hunger are on the increase. The number of undernourished Africans increased by one million a year from 2000 to 2002, though the proportion of people undernourished reduced from 36% to 33% over the previous ten years. On current projections Africa will be the only continent that will fail to meet the international community’s targets to reduce poverty, hunger and disease – the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) – by 2015. Indeed the World Bank estimates that, on current trends, sub-Saharan Africa will meet them in 2147, more than a century off target. While diverse factors such as civil conflict, corruption and adverse terms of trade contribute to Africa’s problems, it is recognised that more and better aid will be a necessary condition to reducing poverty in the continent.

Agriculture remains key to poverty reduction

Agriculture remains key to achieving the poverty targets of the MDGs in Africa. Nearly 80% of the population in sub-Saharan Africa live in rural areas and 70% of this rural population are dependent on food production through farming or livestock keeping for most of their livelihood. Small-scale farming provides most of the food produced in Africa, as well as employment for 60% of working people.

Agriculture constitutes the backbone of most African economies; is the largest contributor to GNI, the biggest source of foreign exchange, and the main generator of savings and tax revenues.

But Africa’s agriculture is in crisis and set to get worse

However, agricultural productivity is dropping in sub-Saharan Africa. For example, per capita agricultural production fell by about 5% over the last 20 years while increasing by 40% in other developing countries. As the focus of development assistance shifts towards export-led growth and state support for agriculture is progressively withdrawn, the productivity of small farmers has declined due to:
  • the lack of access to land and resources;

  • the degradation of natural resources;

  • poor access to markets;

  • low investment in agricultural research, training and extension services;

  • the lack of private sector services to fill the vacuum left behind.
Added to these are two further problems. HIV/AIDS is reducing life expectancy and the productive capacity of farming households – in the past two decades 7 million farmers and agricultural workers have died of AIDS in the most affected countries.

Climate change, in the form of increased extreme weather patterns, particularly more frequent and prolonged droughts, is expected to have a further detrimental effect on Africa’s agriculture.

Yet aid to agriculture has declined

Farmers in sub-Saharan Africa are struggling to adapt to these crises but support is declining. Whilst total aid to sub-Saharan Africa remained stable during the 1990s, the proportion allocated to agriculture declined year on year. For example, aid to agriculture in SADC Member States declined as a proportion of total aid from 20% in the early 1980s to 8% by 2000. If poverty in Africa is to be reduced, aid to agriculture must be increased substantially and made to work more effectively.

African farmers and governments are calling for more support

There is a growing recognition among key actors such as the New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD) and the Commission for Africa that a new emphasis has to be placed on aid for African agriculture. The Commission for Africa, for example, calls for a doubling of aid to the continent and recommends a 50%increase by 2010 in donor funding for small-scale irrigation and post-harvest infrastructure as means of direct support to small-scale farmers. NEPAD’s Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP) also highlights the need to support food security by increasing small farmers’ productivity.

Practical Action research indicates that African farmers themselves call for:

  • Greater aid focus on the needs of marginal farmers and pastoralists;

  • Support for long-term food security instead of food aid;

  • Improved access to land, credit, water and appropriate seeds and breeds;

  • Improved access to relevant agricultural advice and support; to appropriate technologies; and an agricultural research system that reflects their needs;

  • A bigger voice in decisions regarding the allocation of resources to agriculture.
EC aid to agriculture tends to benefit better off farmers and undermine poor farmers

The European Commission (EC) manages the world’s largest development aid programme. EC aid to agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa has not been particularly well focused on resource-poor farmers. It is targeted towards the funding of commodity associations; the privatisation of agricultural extension services, particularly veterinary services; and support to commodity sectors, including encouragement of farmers to affiliate to commodity associations in order to obtain support. This approach assumes an ability to pay or participate that is unrealistic for the majority of farmers living below the poverty line.

EC sectoral support focuses on commodity crops, cultivated by better-off farmers, rather than staples. The privatisation of extension services, unless carefully designed to deliver at community level, can also prejudice resource-poor farmers since, for example, service provision to remoter areas is often not profitable.

When EC aid does reach poor farmers it is usually in the form of food aid. This often has an adverse impact on local production systems and markets, and leads to longerterm dependency on aid.

EC aid reforms threatens support for food security

There is some evidence that the EC is beginning to take support to agriculture more seriously. However, the fundamental drive of the EU-ACP Cotonou Agreement is to prepare the existing commercial and industrial sectors in Africa for integration into the world economy by 2013. Without a change in policy it is unlikely that increased aid flows will be targeted to tackle the crisis facing the vast majority of small-scale farmers, the majority of Africa’s poor.

EC supported food security programmes, for example through NGOs, have been effective in helping resource-poor farmers to access to land, mobilise resources, and introduce sustainable production techniques. They are developed in line with the farmers’ demands outlined above. Yet food security programmes remain a tiny proportion of aid to the agricultural sector.

Proposed reforms to EC development assistance, due to start in 2007, will reduce funding for such food security programmes and will focus more on bilateral assistance to governments. However, direct budget support can work against ministries of agriculture, often one of the weakest government ministries. If the EC is serious in its commitment to achieving the Millennium Development Goals to reduce poverty in Africa it must increase, not reduce, its commitment to resource poor farmers and food security on the continent.

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