Sagging Incomes Keep Africans Hungry. EMPTY PLATES

Much of Africa will have above-average or even record harvests this year, as it did last year. But many Africans are still going hungry. The surge in food production, due chiefly to improved weather conditions, highlights what one World Bank official describes as the paradox of ``full silos, empty stomachs.''

Big harvests are not helping poorly paid or jobless city residents who cannot afford to buy enough food, even if prices fall slightly. And in rural areas, many small farmers who cannot grow enough for their families lack the money to buy extra food.

Thus, even as many experts seek ways to further boost Africa's food production, a smaller number are looking for ways to boost incomes to help the hungry poor afford decent diets.

According to the World Bank, nearly one-fourth of Africa's population - more than 100 million people - do not get enough to eat. Food consumption per person has been declining for most Africans since 1980, the bank says.

Large-scale famine continues in southern Sudan, due to a five-year civil war. War also hampers farm production in at least three other countries - Angola, Mozambique, and Ethiopia.

But elsewhere, ``The basic part of hunger [in Africa] is an income problem,'' says G. Edward Schuh, a former economic aide to US Presidents Ford and Carter, and ex-World Bank director of agriculture and rural development. ``It's basically a poverty problem.''

There is a growing recognition among experts of a poverty-hunger link. In a recent issue of the publication Africa Report, World Bank vice-president for Africa, Edward Jaycox, said: ``Hunger is not mainly caused by transitory droughts or crop failures or interruptions in the market ... Rather, chronic food insecurity is caused by poverty ... ''

Per capita income has been declining in Africa for several decades, falling by 25 percent since 1980, Mr. Jaycox says. (See chart on next page.)

``We cannot treat the hunger problem as [only] a food supply problem,'' says Sholom Reutlinger, a World Bank official.

World Bank President Barber Conable has called for more efforts to help the poor afford more food. But for now, most Bank and other aid efforts remain directed at boosting food production rather than income.

Diverting more international and African attention to incomes will not be easy, Mr. Reutlinger says. Larger farmers and equipment manufacturers push to keep the focus on increasing crop production. And donors and African bureaucracies are long accustomed to such a focus, he says.

Reutlinger and other specialists interviewed support efforts to boost food production. But, they say, with the improved harvests, now is a good time to try harder to find ways to help more people afford the food already available in their countries.

They call for such programs as:

Hiring small farmers in the off-season to build rural roads and bridges and paying them with vouchers which can be exchanged for food.

Malawi has begun such a program and the World Bank is considering helping fund it. If such programs are not run during the slack farming season, however, they may pull farmers away from regular farm work, one expert says.

Paying rural children with food for each week of school they attend.

This would help many families by reducing their expenses on food, and would encourage school attendance, says Mr. Schuh, now dean of the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota. A few programs like this have been launched in schools in India, but he is not aware of any in Africa, Schuh says.

Schuh says the more common types of aid to farmers also help the poor eat more. For example, assisting export-crop farmers through government programs such as credit and improved roads often leads to their hiring more labor, giving the laborers more income.

And government aid to farmers growing staple food crops also helps the poor by reducing food prices, he adds.

The challenge in Africa this year is what to do with the bumper crops already in or expected. Storage facilities in most countries are inadequate.

Where storage is available, Reutlinger suggests that the local governments buy the surplus and use it to pay for work projects carried out by the poor.

Dean Schuh says countries should export what they cannot use or sell, and save the foreign exchange that is earned to import food during lean years. Cumbersome as that may sound, it would avoid losses of food in storage to rodents and insects, he says.

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