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Prescription for change

By David K. WillisStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 29, 1984


A key series of efforts to encourage farmers to produce more food goes on quietly, out of the headlines, in a dozen African capitals. Solidly based on capitalism and private enterprise, it has three main aims:

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1. Paying farmers more for their crops. 2. Dismantling government monopolies on buying and selling food, and, 3. Raising food prices in the cities which are kept artificially low for political reasons.

The prime movers: the United States, the World Bank, the United Nations World Food Program and other food aid donors, working together in countries such as Mali (whose government cereals board was cited by one report for ''acute mismanagement and huge deficits'' before reforms began) and Kenya.

The weapon, as described by officials in Rome, Washington, London, and a number of African capitals: calibrating and measuring out Western food and financial aid on condition that governments make changes that donors want to see.

Two countries, Tanzania and Ghana, have turned to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in reluctant but definite recognition that their experiments with socialist agriculture have failed. Lacking incentive or skilled management, farmers produced less and less.

In Kenya today the US wants to end regulations that no private individual may transport more than five 90-kilo (200-lb.) bags of grain across a district border. Only the government can do so.

With the onset of severe drought, the regulation has been tightened to prevent any such private transport. The government insists on retaining control, to stop hoarding and to prevent smuggling. Kenyan officials are involved in the grain trade, since Kenya has no conflict-of-interest laws that would prevent them.

Washington wants to see 1 million bags sold on the private market each year, one-fifth of total sales.

The Kenyans plead that they can do nothing until the current drought, the worst in 50 years, is over. US officials have agreed to postpone, but say the reform must be made when grain production gets back to 90 percent of the average for the last 10 years.

The US approach is not limited to Kenya alone: ''It's the cutting edge of what we plan in other countries as well,'' says a senior official.

So far, donor efforts to generate reform have met with mixed results. The efforts are still fairly new. Young, inexperienced, centralized governments have been reluctant to loosen state control, or admit that their food policies are wrong.

The West has had little recent influence in military/Marxist Ethiopia, or Angola, or Mozambique. Other smaller countries still have a long way to go.

Politics is always involved. In Kenya, not only the drought blocks rapid progress, but some senior politicians are still reluctant to recognize the scale or scope of needed reforms. The civil service reportedly agrees with Western donors.

The unprecentedly bad drought in Kenya, especially in the north and east, means the government needs 1.1 million tons of extra grain in the year which began Oct. 1. The US is helping with 120,000 tons of corn and wheat, and officials believe another 120,000 will be needed. It is giving three types of development aid: buying imports, providing food grants, and some money to import fertilizer.

Among the strings attached: When the Kenyan government buys grain from farmers it must pay cash on the nail instead of issuing promissory notes and making farmers wait a year for their money, as happens now. The World Bank is also being firm. It is refusing to issue a third major structural loan until Kenya complies with conditions for the second.