What these farming communities need, above all else, is increased public investment in rural roads, electrical power, irrigation, clinics, schools, and agricultural research. But in recent decades, most African governments failed to make these investments because of a lack of international support. Between 1978 and 2006, the share of World Bank loans that went to agricultural development fell from 30 percent to only 8 percent.
The United States has also reduced its aid to small farmers since the 1980s. U.S. official development assistance to agriculture in Africa fell from $400 million annually in the 1980s to only $60 million by 2006. The political right promoted this abandonment of agricultural-development assistance on the erroneous assumption that private investment alone could do the job. The political left went along on the equally erroneous belief that modernizing African farming might be bad for social justice and the environment.
As international donors walked away from long-term agricultural-development efforts in Africa, per capita food production fell, leading predictably to an even greater need for emergency food aid. By 2006, perversely, the United States was spending 20 times as much shipping free food to Africa as it was spending to help Africans produce their own food.
A shock of much higher world food prices in 2008 finally led donors to promise revived support for Africa's smallholder farmers. President Obama announced in 2009 that he would ask Congress for a doubling of U.S. agricultural-development assistance worldwide, up to more than $1 billion by 2010. Later that year, at a summit meeting of the G8, he convinced the world's rich nations to pledge $22 billion collectively over three years to promote food security and agricultural development. By 2010, however, donors in Europe were facing a debt crisis, opted for budget austerity, and began backing away from these promises.
In the United States, the right - and the Tea Party movement, in particular -- began demanding budget cuts as well. In fiscal year 2011, Congress accordingly cut the expected U.S. contribution to a new Global Agricultural Food Security Program from $400 million down to only $100 million. And now a House Appropriations subcommittee has just cut FY 2012 funding for the Obama Administration's Feed the Future program by 18 percent. Only about half of 1 percent of our federal budget goes to poverty-focused foreign aid, so cutting these programs will have no significant budget impact at home -- only damaging humanitarian effects abroad.
In Somalia, if these effects are to be prevented from cascading into a full-scale disaster of the kind the country suffered through in the 1990s, the international community will have to focus as much effort as possible, as quickly as possible, where we can be most effective. This will mean covering shortfalls to protect current WFP feeding operations in the Horn of Africa. But also, especially from the United States, it will mean delivering on promised support for farming across Africa (which in turn will depend on Congressional appropriations committees feeling as much pressure as the U.S. public can muster that they deliver on this promised support). Around the Horn of Africa today, roughly 11 million people face food risks, while on the continent as a whole there are now an estimated 390 million Africans consuming less than the nutritional target of 2,100 calories per day. Most of these hungry people are farmers. Understanding what they need for a sustainable response to the food crisis they face, and responding to that need directly, will be the pivotal challenge in alleviating African famine.