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Food Emergency: How the World Bank and IMF Have Made African Famine Inevitable

Lending policies pushed by the World Bank and IMF transformed a self-sufficient, food-producing Africa into a continent vulnerable to food emergencies and famine.

“Why, in a world that produces more than enough food to feed everybody, do so many – one in seven of us – go hungry?”  -- Oxfam    

Famine is spreading like wildfire throughout the horn of Africa. As  12 million people battle hunger, the UN warns that  750,000 people in Somalia face imminent death from starvation over the next four months, in the absence of outside intervention. Over the course of just 90 days, an estimated  29,000 children under the age of five died in Southern Somalia, with another 640,000 children suffering from acute malnourishment.

In the rush to find a culprit to blame for the tragedy unfolding in East Africa, the mainstream news outlets attributed the cause to record droughts, a rise in food prices, biofuel production and land grabs by foreign investors with an added emphasis on the role of the Somali terrorist group Al-Shabaab. Yet these factors alone are not responsible for the famine; instead they have intensified an already dire hunger crisis that has persistedin Sub-Saharan Africa for decades, thanks to lending policies pushed by the World Bank and  International Monetary Fund (IMF) that transformed a self-sufficient, food-producing Africa into a continent dependent on imports and food aid, leaving the continent vulnerable to food emergencies and famine.  

Since 1981, when these lending policies were first implemented, Oxfamfound that the amount of sub-Saharan Africans surviving on less than one dollar a day doubled to 313 million by 2001, which is 46 percent of the population.  Since the mid-1980s, the number of food emergencies per year on the continent has tripled.

According to Oxfam International spokesperson Caroline Pearce, the IMF and World Bank structural adjustment programs of the '80s and '90s led to “huge disinvestments in the agricultural sector.” Pearce concludes, “What we’re seeing now in poor agricultural systems partly relates to those kind of policies. In many cases, we’re actually calling for things to be reestablished that were dismantled under structural adjustment programs in the past.”

Yet the impoverished countries of Africa, imperiled by mass starvation, continue to pay for a “free market” agenda, and it’s costing them their lives.

From Food Abundance to Mass Starvation

Walden Bello, reportingfor Foreign Policy in Focus, observes that Africa was self-sufficient in food production after declaring independence from its colonial rulers in the 1960s.  Yet today, hunger and famine in Africa have “become recurrent phenomena ” across the continent.

According to BBC analyst Martin Plaut , Africa was also a food net exporter between 1966 and 1970, with an average of 1.3 million tons of food exported each year. In stark contrast, almost all of today’s African countries are dependent on imports and food aid, a dramatic shift that took less than 40 years to transpire.

Which begs the question: how did an entire continent go from being a net food exporter to a net food importer, from food abundance to mass starvation, in such a short period of time?

In her book  The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism , Naomi Klein details how global power players use times of crisis and chaos as a pretext for imposing destructive free-market policies that advance the interests of the wealthy. As far back as the 1970s, economists inspired by free-market guru Milton Friedman were inspiring U.S.-backed coups and military juntas to push an unpopular radical free-market agenda onto the unwilling populations of countries like Chile, Brazil and Argentina.

But Klein highlights a significant shift in strategy that took place in the mid-1980s, when economists recognized that a financial crisis “simulates the effects of a military war—spreading fear and confusion, creating refugees and causing large loss of life” -- the same shock-inducing conditions that left societies ripe for disaster capitalism. 

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