AFRICA; A parched continent searches for food and stability

These are perilous times for Africa. The continent has made rapid strides in the last 20 years in literacy, social and medical services, and road construction. But when it comes to political stability, economic progress, and social development, the outlook is grim.

Drought, in some cases the worst in over a century, has reduced economic strategy to mere survival. Millions of tons of seed intended for next year's plantings are being eaten. For these starving people there were no alternatives. In Ethiopia alone, 3 million people are threatened by starvation.

A diplomat from Cape Verde Islands, the country worst hit by drought in the Sahel region of West Africa, says the drought weighs so heavily on the minds of everyone in the Sahel that the people wonder how they will survive until tomorrow.

According to a recent meeting of the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization, as many as 22 countries in Africa face catastrophic food shortages as a result of the drought.

Drought has compounded the severe economic situation of the African continent , which was already dented by the world recession. Fluctuating exchange rates, falling commodity prices, and high interest rates have all taken a toll on Africa. As a result, revenues are down. Debts are up. Development projects are either on hold or have been tossed out of the window. Social tensions are rising.

Most political leaders know economic solutions, not political rhetoric, must be employed, and many are taking steps on the economic front. President Daniel arap Moi of Kenya, for example, has just appointed a Cabinet more noteworthy for technocratic capability than political fence-mending.

Africa watchers say not since these countries gained independence has there been such a need for political leadership to take the difficult decisions that will help lift their countries out of an economic trough. High on the list of needs are the rooting out of corruption, sometimes at the highest political levels; the restructuring of existing institutions; and a greater emphasis on agriculture. Governments are hoping to stem the flow of farmers into cities - which is occurring at twice the rate of Asia's migration - by raising food prices.

At the same time, no expert connected with Africa doubts that substantial outside financial assistance is essential if reforms are going to work.

As if drought, debts, high interest rates, fluctuating commodity prices and exchange rates are not enough, Africa has problems unique in the third world.

Population rates are not only increasing in Africa, they are running ahead of per-capita food production. (In other third-world regions, population rates are stabilizing or declining.) A result is that Africa now has less food on a per-capita basis than it did a decade or two ago.

Nigeria, the giant and in many ways the leader of black Africa, is now the continent's largest importer of food. Back in the 1960s, it was Africa's largest food exporter.

The outlook is particularly depressing to those observers who remember a period of relative prosperity for the continent in the 1960s.

But today, the World Bank is singling out the continent for special attention to help it cope with world recession, which has hit Africa harder than any other region, and the devastating drought.

Some countries in Africa have retrogressed despite some massive infusions of aid. Ministers from the eight Sahel countries, meeting with donor countries and international institutions in late October generally agreed that corrective action since 1976 has been insufficient. One report presented to the gathering stated: ''The goal of food self-sufficiency does not seem any closer now than it was seven years ago.''

Those at the meeting are members of the so-called Sahel club that formed in 1976 to focus attention on the plight of drought-stricken Niger, Mali, Upper Volta, Chad, Mauritania, Gambia, Senegal, and Cape Verde. Since its formation, nearly $2 billion a year has been funneled into the African countries by Western industrialized nations, the European Community, the United Nations, and Kuwait. That is double the average amount to the rest of Africa.

But over the past year, five African states - Sierra Leone, Togo, Equatorial Guinea, Djibouti, and Sao Tome and Principe - have joined the list of the world's least developed countries. Of the 36 specially designated poorest countries in the world, 26 are in Africa. And of the 46 sub-Saharan countries, only eight or nine are considered credit-worthy for loans, banking specialists say.

While Africa's collective debt (approximately $80 billion) pales in comparison with Latin America's (a whopping $300 billion), the strain on these African countries has been more severe. This is because their economies are less diversified and less sophisticated, often depending on just one or two commodities for export. Zambia, for instance, receives more than 70 percent of its foreign-exchange earnings from copper. Coffee represents almost 90 percent of Burundi's recorded exports. Ghana gets about 70 percent of its foreign revenues from cocoa.

African states together with their third-world compatriots expected that, minimally, the last session of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD VI) at Belgrade last summer would provide price supports to help stabilize fluctuating world commodity prices. Without such stability, they felt it would be impossible to make any long-range economic plans. But they left Belgrade empty-handed.

Speaking for the third world as a whole, but with special reference to Africa's problems, Ghanaian representative Korle E. W. Glover-Akpey outlined in an interview at that Belgrade conference the importance of commodity prices to the developing world:

''The majority of the world's population lives in the rural areas of the developing world and their environments are not far from primitive living. They still burn a candle at night and chop wood to cook with and make structures. They lack purified water and the modern tools for farming and all the aspects of life.''

''The one area,'' he added in a resigned tone, ''where these areas could benefit is in commodities, and we need the stabilizing of commodity prices so we can have regular incomes. We're not being militant. We're asking for what is a genuine request, which is to live within our available resources.''

With UNCTAD VI failing to deliver what Africa and the third world wants, all eyes have turned to Washington, headquarters of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, to provide the assistance to keep their sinking economies afloat. This includes an increase in IMF aid quotas (awaiting congressional action in the case of US), and the provision of soft (long-term, low-interest) loans from the International Development Association.

Previous IMF fiscal rescue plans, which required debtor countries to try to eliminate their balance-of-payments deficits, have caused considerable economic sacrifice - raising social tensions and increasing political risks for the beleaguered governments. Results of such austerity measures have been mixed.

In one African country, according to a well-informed Western economist, many of the gains achieved through the IMF reforms and the self-sacrifice of the people are being plucked off by corrupt politicians.

Some political commentators wonder whether for fragile African countries, the cure (IMF austerity measures) is worse than the the problem (severe balance-of-payments difficulties, shortages, unemployment, high interest rates, and foreign debts).

But many economists familiar with these situations feel African problems are so acute there is no alternative.

The problem is that much of Africa today is faced either with a shrinking revenue base or a limited resource base. With these inhibitions, governments have very limited options on how to redress economic imbalances.

Their reluctance to address the situation rapidly and comprehensively is often a reflection on their own vulnerability and their desire not to upset their political constituencies.

One of the most urgent reforms that is being pressed on African governments is to provide more incentives for farmers by increasing farm prices while raising consumer prices in the cities, where they have been kept artificially low. But governments that are reluctant to antagonize the cities - focal points for political unrest - are wary of grasping this nettlesome issue.

The danger, as an African economist familiar with these situations points out , is that many governments ''delay and delay and delay'' in taking the tough, but necessary action, to correct their economic problems. And, he cautions, ''By delaying, you do not buy time, you lose time.''

This economist explains that the steps that have to be taken to rectify the situation are larger than they would have been if action had been taken much sooner.

Even with financial help, there is concern among Africa watchers not only about the survival of millions of Africans generally, but of governments themselves.

As many as 20 African countries have populations of less than 5 million people. Some observers think several of these countries may not exist decades from now - that they may be swallowed up in larger, more viable economic and political groupings.

African states are only too aware of the challenges facing them. Not all of them are convinced, though, that getting their own house in order will put them on track.

An ambassador from a French West African nation explains the dilemma facing countries in his parched region:

''Last time we waited until we were in an extreme situation before we sounded our alarm. The intention after the 1968-73 Sahel drought was that we would not wait that long. So we have been trying to use more cultivatable surfaces and modernize our agriculture so we could get ourselves out from dependence.

''But despite all our efforts, we find our efforts at self-sufficiency are not getting better, because the climate is not changing and the demographics are considerable. Even if food production increases 1 percent, the human population is increasing from 2 to 4 percent, which means a permanent disequilibrium which gets worse and worse.

''Land for cultivation is decreasing,'' he continues. ''The southern part of the desert is increasing, and we're suffering from the worldwide problem African states find themselves in - that they are less and less able to finance their projects. Our hands are tied and we can't organize our economies as we would like.''

What is not in doubt is that agriculture is the preeminent concern of Africa and that the crucial need now is to shift the priorities to emphasize its importance.

Inhibiting that drive is the concern that there is such an ''alarming lack of knowledge'' about agriculture in Africa, as one expert put it. Besides, the controversy as to whether Africa should settle for a rain-fed agriculture, made more precarious by pervasive droughts, or opt for (expensive) irrigation is no nearer resolution now than it was a decade ago.

Some, like Sheila Page of the British-based Overseas Development Institute interviewed in London recently, believe that too much is being asked of Africa.

''There is no question they [Africans] have made mistakes. But they don't have fully trained economists, politicians, lawyers, and agronomists. To judge them on the basis that the Bundestag would have done it better is silly. They have done remarkably well considering the external factors.''

To Dan A. Klingenberg, vice-president of Chase Manhattan Bank and the bank's agricultural expert who has paid numerous visits to Africa, the problems of the continent overshadow the modest but important successes of Africa's small farmers - or, as he calls them, ''Africa's unsung heroes.'' Among those who qualify for his success list are the small cotton farmers in Zimbabwe, the small tea farmers in Malawi, the small sugar growers on the Mumias project in Kenya, and the small holders producing food crops in the Cameroon.

David Fouquet contributed to this story from Brussels.m

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