[This was too long to fit in the news email so...]
'Capacity building' Key To End of Drought-Famine Cycle, says Expert
May 19, 2003
Posted to the web May 19, 2003
Charles Cobb Jr.
The past year's food emergency in Southern Africa's continues to have a
devastating impact although the Food and Agriculture Organisation's
forecast of a 'generally favourable' cereal harvest across the region
(with the exception of Zimbabwe, where production is expected to fall
for the third consecutive year) may help to offset shortfalls in aid.
The region has suffered exceptional food shortages - for a time an
estimated 16.4 million people were in need of food aid assistance -
thanks to the twin scourges of extreme climatic events and HIV. But even
if food needs can be met in the short term, will Southern Africa, or
indeed, the rest of the continent, continue to be at the mercy of
climate extremes and dependent on aid? Dr Suresh Babu, who has worked as
an agricultural development expert in Malawi and is now a senior
research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute
(IFPRI) says African nations must tackle capacity-building if they are
to break the cycle. He spoke to Charles Cobb Jr. Excerpts:
The food emergency continues across Southern Africa, in Malawi in
particular. What are we dealing with here? Poor climate, uncertain
climate or uncertain policies?
Let me broadly address this issue from the perspective of someone going
there as a development adviser for the Minister of agriculture of
I spent about five years in the early '90s, working in the ministry of
agriculture, with the rough title of senior policy adviser, trying to
exactly address these issues on a day-to-day basis, working with the
ministry officials, the deputy-minister and so on.
What is different now compared to what we were doing in the early 90's?
In terms of the climate problem nothing's different. In terms of
solutions, we actually handled a crisis in 1991-92, which was supposed
to be the worst drought that the region had seen in fifty years. And
Southern African countries came together and addressed the problem,
prevented famine from occurring.
Today several things are different: The capacity to diagnose a problem
well in advance, the capacity to analyze information that is coming from
the field, and to generate information that would enable us to make
policies in order to prevent famine was there in place in 1991. In the
early 1990s this capacity was generally in place because there was a
concerted effort by the donor community to put it in place. Now that
capacity has eroded. The capacity now to organize at the country level,
a set of people who can identify the problem, analyze the information
that's coming from the field - meaning the grassroots - and design a
solution in order to prevent famine is not there.
I was there trying to train about forty to fifty persons every year how
to analyze this information. That capacity has been eroded, partly
because of health reasons and I can specifically mention Aids, which is
devastating that country.
Now we do not have enough capacity now to handle this problem. When
someone from Washington goes there and says, "sell off your stock!",
people do not even think about what will happen; they don't have the
capacity to sit down and analyze what is the optimal stock to have in
the event of famine, or if one should occur. They just listen to
outsiders who are supposed to be the experts on the country, who just go
there for five days, ten days at a maximum. And that is the problem for
these countries, particularly in Malawi.
Someone coming with a briefcase from Washington can say: "If you do not
do this, you are not going to get that tranche or loan that I am
supposed to be giving to you." So what do I do, as a minister of
finance? Go sell it. And what happens to the money is a different story,
how we organize it in terms of government is another story. As the
finance minister, I just do what others say because I do not have my own
economists... Or if I am the minister of agriculture, to tell me what I
should be doing in terms of production policies, marketing policies and
Can you illustrate that from your own experience?
A. I will give you an example. This is how typically it happens. A team
from Geneva, Washington, London or Paris, you name it, arrives with good
intentions in order to help the country. If you take the example of the
World Bank for example, the World Bank sends a mission of ten to fifteen
people to design agriculture policy for any country for the next ten to
fifteen years. It is called an agricultural sector project.
The ten to fifteen people will come with their briefcase and stay in
the five-star hotel in the capital. They walk into the ministry of
agriculture and collect whatever information that they can collect, and
within fifteen or twenty days analyze the data, do a good job of it, but
recommend policies and programs for the country for the next fifteen
years. And that becomes the country development plan for agriculture for
example. Who implements this plan? Those who did not develop the plan in
the first place.
So if you do not have the capacity to design programs that are needed
for your own problems, you are always going to be dependent on external
capacity to come and tell you what to do. And that's exactly what
happened in Malawi. The IMF team went in there and said:"You are having
so much stock and that's a waste of money because your fiscal budget is
in bad shape. You just get rid of it so you can save some money. Yes,
it's a good policy in terms of fiscal budget, but it's not a good policy
in terms of food policy.
Is it primarily an IMF problem?
It's not really just an IMF problem. It's a general problem of the
donor countries coming in to tell governments what to do, and
governments not having the capacity to meaningfully negotiate with the
And that problem extends to all other spheres of life for example in
Malawi. There are not enough teachers to teach in high schools, there
are not enough health care people to take care of the people, not enough
hospitals, not enough primary health care systems, and not enough people
to teach policy courses so that they can organize information for
themselves, and analyze the information.
So what happened ten years ago, that isn't happening now?
Here's an example. Ten years ago a food security monitoring unit looked
at the rainfall pattern in different parts of the country during
different periods of time, over the years. We knew exactly that if you
don't get adequate rainfall during a couple of weeks in November and a
couple of weeks in March, you can already start making preparations for
importing food. You don't have to wait for anything else. The harvest is
in May, but we already know two months in advance of harvest that we are
not going to get good harvest. It takes about three to four months to
get food from Kansas or wherever to the country in Malawi. So we just
prepare right away. This was called the early warning system that was in
The drought mechanism is very simple. The planting season starts in
October when you have to clear the land. We need one rain to clear the
land. The first rain comes in almost the second week of October so
farmers go to the field to prepare the land. Some farmers already sow
the seeds right away.
In the second week of November, you need the crucial rain, the moisture
for germination of the seeds. When that rain comes, you have crossed one
hurdle in terms of drought. And then the plant grows and you do
inter-cultivation weeding and everything. By the second week of March,
you need another rain. If that rain doesn't come, even if you have good
standing crops, you may not get good harvest. And that's what has been
happening for the past two years in a row. March rains have been
missing, in many parts of Malawi and in Southern Africa in general.
Why do we get that cyclical poor rain fall? You can talk about the El
Nino factors but I don't believe that we need to worry about that. We
have so much information, we can predict the shortage of production.
Crops are going to fail. Crops fail even in Iowa. But it's what you do
about that that is important. The capacity to understand how much loss
is likely, the capacity to organize the mechanisms that we bring the
food in the country, the capacity to distribute the food in a way that
does not disturb the market within the country is not there.
So now, say I'm the prime minister or the president; there is drought,
donors are calling the prime minister's office saying, "hey, there's a
drought going on in your country, don't you know?" So I talk to the
press and say, "Yes, we have a huge problem in our country and we need
Then the donors come back to tell the government; "Tell us exactly how
much food you want", but the government doesn't have the capacity to
answer. So donors sit together and say: "We need to tell this government
how much food we should be bringing in". And the U.S. government's
representative there says, "I can bring in so much food." The European
Union representative also does this. That's how food aid is organized in
the country, not by the government but by donors.
I have no problem with that because, right now, there is no alternative
- the capacity has been eroded, and the capacity has not been built. But
even donors who recognize that there is no capacity in the country do
not invest in building the capacity so that Malawians can take care of
their problems in the long run.
Well, as you say, Aids is hitting the age group that would have the
education to contribute to rebuilding those capacities; so are we moving
We have been moving backwards in the last ten years. Of the more or
less 400 people I trained, 150 of them have died, with their Masters and
PhD. degrees. Mostly it is because of Aids, I would say, but also
because of [other] illnesses. These are people between 30 and 50 years
of age, there's no need to die just like that. But this we know.
In the early '90s there was no information, no education about changing
the behaviour, you know, all the usual things that go along with this
disease. Now, in the latter part of the '90s we have seen a new
generation coming up with knowledge of the disease, how to prevent the
disease, how to take care of themselves, and there are a lot people
coming out college with education. But we are not investing in them.
When you say, "We are not investing in them?" who do you mean by "we"?
I include the international community, including the donor community,
the United Nations, the bilateral and multilateral agencies who have
capacity in terms of funds to help these countries. They do not invest
in the capacity-building of the local population. They would rather send
people from Washington, Geneva, or Paris to go and solve the problems
through technical assistance.
What's the reason for that attitude?
There are two reasons. One, the donor community saw they were paying
somebody with a Masters and PhD and they would die in a couple of years.
Yes, it happened and that is frustrating. To me, it is frustrating that
I lost 150 people. It is a frustration. But they turned around and said,
"Let's not train these people because they are going to die anyway."
It's just like you would say in Washington DC, "I am not going to
educate my child because he would go out and engage in drugs and kill
himself. Why am I putting money in it? You see that is the kind of
thinking that went through. That is one reason.
The second reason is that the meagre capacity they built, they saw that
it is not being used to solve the problems because the capacity they had
was dissipated in so many things, there was not enough return...
Is that because they were so few?
Yes. The newly trained PhD from the United States, Cornell let us say -
30 years of age, comes out with a PhD in horticulture, Class 1 Breeder
of vegetables. He comes back and finds that there is no one else. So he
has to take the leadership of the national research organization, which
means he is doing administration, not breeding. So the donors who sent
this person for breeding capacity see that it's a waste of money. But
that is not a reason to stop funding capacity building. You need to
spend money and build so much capacity that adequate capacity itself
will translate into action for local people and local government.
Is any of this changing? Do you see change in attitudes, procedures,
A. I am not very sure that it is changing, but it has to change if we
are going to make any meaningful contribution to development at all.
Of course the World Bank and IMF have been saying that they are
reconsidering the whole structural adjustment approach...
But any approach they make they do not consider this problem. I would
say, instead of giving what they call technical assistance, provide half
of it in terms of capacity assistance. If I [as an expert] show a local
group of trainees how I am developing this master plan for the next 15
years for the country they are going to do the same thing next time it
needs to be done.
So that is the missing element right now. So the attitude is not
changing that much. People are talking about participatory development,
involving people in developing participatory plans, but still -
participation is not going to be full unless we build the capacity for
Do you think that African governments recognize this need?
A. Governments do recognize, but governments are not in a very good
position to dictate terms with the donor community. They take what is
given. And as a result of that, unless the capacity strengthening effort
goes from outside, but works within, we are not going to make any big
progress in the next ten to fifteen years. We will come back in another
ten years and ask why there is another famine in Malawi? I would say the
same thing. You have not built enough capacity for the people to handle
their problems by themselves!
The capacity building issue wasn't to the fore at the Johannesburg
summit on sustainable development. Why not?
Because was all about thematic issues, which are poverty, environment,
growth and all those issues. But who is going to do the work? People are
missing the whole point. Whenever I get the opportunity to speak out, I
say this. You can come up with all plans and policies and programs and
give it to these countries and they will sign. 180 countries coming
together and signing a declaration and saying this is what we should do.
Do you know what has happened to the declarations that they have done in
Not only Rio. The food summit, commitment to children - all these are
sitting in government offices. No one is even reading them let alone
working with them. So the challenge is, How do you translate the
policies and programs and agendas that are coming out of these major
conferences which are held once in 10 years, once in five years into
action? Who is going to translate them into action?
The "brain drain" is a huge problem in many of these countries. You see
most Malawian doctors in Manchester,[England]. There is a whole street
of Malawian doctors! They were sent by the Malawian government with five
years of scholarship. They studied and stayed in UK. It's been happening
year after year and the government hasn't been able to come up with a
simple plan that if you take government money you are to come back and
serve us for five years before you can go somewhere else. This is a
problem of governance, a problem of accountability.
If I, as a minister of finance or as a minister of environment,
minister of agriculture, don't have people to implement the global
agenda in my country, you can forget about it. I'll come to another
conference in the next five years when you invite me, pay for me to come
and sign whatever you want me to sign and go home. But I'm not going to
show any progress because I don't have anyone to work with in order to
translate this global agenda into a national agenda.