Africa's immediate need and its longer-term prospects. Focus on famine distorts picture of continent that could turn itself around within two to seven years

With so much gloom and doom being spread about Africa's economic condition, it is time to try and put the situation into better perspective. The strong focus on Africa's food problems, which is vitally important, has nevertheless distorted the picture: the conditions in Ethiopia, Mozambique, and the Sahel region are not typical of the rest of the continent.

While Africa is passing through the worst crisis in its modern history, so are many of the industrial countries. Relatively speaking, the economic decline in Britain has been much greater than in all except the hardest of cases in Africa.

There is, of course, one important difference: countries like Britain have the industrial and agricultural base from which to stage an economic recovery once the present international economic recession is over.

The World Bank president, A. W. Clausen, is probably right in saying that it will take Africa 40 years to recover from its recent setbacks. Thus, it is helpful to consider Africa's prospects in several time frames:

For the next couple of years, the outlook is bad. Over several decades, it is uncertain. But over the next two to seven years, it is not nearly so dark.

If the drought does indeed break, if a recovery does continue, and if there are two normal agricultural seasons, then most countries will be able to produce for the continent's minimum nutrition standards, increase their cash crop exports, and raise the level of industrial production at least to the levels of the mid-1970s.

Although this picture is hardly a satisfactory one, it is so immeasurably better than the present situation that it now seems almost unbelievable. In fact, though, this modest recovery is well within the reach of most African countries.

With even a modest sign of recovery, there is hope that, guided by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank and commercial banks will agree to resume their loans and, with government support, to adopt a more sensible policy of debt rescheduling, or even of writing off non-commercial debts entirely. At least -- and this is crucially important -- it might be expected that the international financial institutions will provide more funds to support the foreign exchange requirements of the non-oil producing countries.

Already, there is evidence that most African leaders have learned from the mistaken policies of the first quarter of a century of independence. Most now understand the priority needs of agricultural development, support for peasant farmers, and the elimination or, at least, the reform of seriously inefficient bureaucracies.

The fact that the Organization of African Unity has summoned an emergency summit for next month to deal exclusively with economic issues is a sign of changing attitudes. Ernest Stern, the senior vice-president of the World Bank, has noted an ``incipient intellectual revolution in Africa.'' The change, he says, has been ``quick and dramatic.''

There are also other significant indicators of change. Consider just two examples. In Zimbabwe, despite the drought, peasants produced over 40 percent of the country's maize last season, showing a much better performance than that of the large-scale farming by the traditional white sector. In Zambia, peasant farmers last season produced record maize crops. The International Coffee Organization has raised quotas for the coming year from the original figure of 56.2 million to 61 million bags at satisfactory prices. One quarter of this quota has been allocated to sub-Saharan Africa, and will boost the foreign exchange earnings of Uganda, Ivory Coast, Cameroon, Zaire, Ethiopia, Madagascar, Kenya, Burundi, Equatorial Guinea, Libera, Malawi, and Rwanda.

Thanks to these reasonable prices for coffee as well as for tea, economic recovery has already begun in a number of countries, such as Kenya. The situation is even brighter in Uganda. With the settling of the longstanding differences between Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania, the whole outlook for East Africa has begun to look much less depressing than for a decade.

West Africa's flawed giant, Nigeria, has benefitted from the financial discipline imposed by its military regime which, in other respects, has less to command it. In Ghana, where the budget deficit has been halved since 1983, the outlook is sufficiently encouraging for its donor nations to increase their aid for next year. It seems the country has, at least, stopped two decades of economic decline.

Despite problems following the change in its leadership, Cameroon's economic situation continues to look reasonably promising. Zaire, under profligate President Mobutu seems to have yielded to the IMF's demands for financial discipline.

Oil could bring new hope for many countries, provided only that earnings from the industry were diverted into the right channels instead of into the wrong pockets.

Cameroon, benefitting from Nigeria's mistakes, has shown that this is possible, and Nigeria itself has learnt an expensive lesson from the misuse of its oil export revenues.

The bottom-line of Africa's economic recovery lies in its agriculture. Until the continent produces enough to feed its people adequately, no real recovery is feasible. But economic recovery cannot be achieved without building up a modest industrial base. A richer peasantry needs goods on which to spend what they earn. If their greater wealth means more imported goods, this will simply aggravate foreign exchange problems, already the bane of a majority of African countries.

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