Famine a man-made disaster? Instinctively one wants to believe that it is not true, that nature not man is responsible. It is far more comfortable for us all if we can continue to think of famine as being the result of drought, disease or flooding. The uncomfortable truth is that the facts point unerringly to man contributing as well to famine conditions. Nature alone cannot be held responsible.

‘If responsibility is not with nature, it is easiest to put the blame squarely on the ex-colonial powers. It is certainly true that the burden of responsibility does lie here, but even so that is not the whole story. Africa has not been as neglected as the famine might lead one to believe. In sub­ Saharan Africa as a whole official annual aid per person amounted to about $18 a year in 1982; in the low-income semi-arid countries aid has, since the famine in the mid- 1970s, reached more than $44 a head. In south Asia aid amounts to only $4.80 per person. In Africa aid finances 10 per cent of gross domestic investment and up to 80 per cent for the low-income semi-arid countries.

Against that record of aid spending there is, however, a pathetic story of the international community taking back with one hand what it is giving with the other, which puts the entire aid programme generated by drought into a different perspective. Between 1973 and 1982 sub-Saharan Africa’s debt increased fivefold. In the two years 1980-82, following the oil price increases and a slump in world trade, Africa borrowed heavily to maintain its level of imports, some essential – some far from essential. Public-debt service payments amounted to $9.9 billion in 1984 and are expected to rise to $11.6 billion a year from now until 1987.

Africa has also been hard hit by changes in world commodity prices. In 1972 it took thirty-eight tonnes of Tanzanian sisal to buy a seven tonne truck, by 1982 it took 134 tonnes. The fall in the real value of copper from Zambian mines has been 60 per cent over the last ten years. With this massive shift of trade against Africa it is true, as is argued, that aid becomes an even lonelier link to the international economy.

Comprehensive reform of international economic relationships is essential and action will help alleviate not just famine but the whole miserable saga of poverty and deprivation that is all too evident all over Africa. Famine will not, however, be eradicated even if all of the desirable international economic actions bear immediate fruit, unless the primacy of small-scale farming is restored. Unless, as is argued, the arrangements for implementing aid are shifted decisively from the large programmes to smaller ones. Unless more manageable projects can be taken over locally. Unless the institutional pro-government bias in the way modern Africa is seen is altered. Without these changes little of consequence will happen at village level.

Such a message is controversial and the argumentation inevitably and deliberately provocative. It is a simple fact that a civil war does not provide the best environment for farming, but to state that truism is to stir a pot of resentment. It is far easier to see all of Africa’s present problems as colonial in origin. Some would wish to ignore the fact that aid provided in the form of foreign currency sometimes drifts into the purchase of arms. It is harsh to remind people that there are more expatriate experts in Africa now than during the colonial period. To swipe at the road-building mania in Africa is for some like invoking the litany of horror stories that fuel the anti-aid lobby. But to ignore the need for genuine criticism of the aid programme is merely to help its opponents.

While it is true that in the eighteenth century, 20 per cent of the world’s population lived in Africa and by the year 2000 it is likely to be less than 13 per cent, it is the distribution of population that has gone awry. In many African countries, people are alternatively crowded into overused lands and elsewhere spread too thin. In the next fifteen years, the total population in Africa is expected to increase proportionately more rapidly than in most parts of the world, and for this to happen without a secure farming base is very dangerous.

If these issues were to be deliberately ignored by concentrating only on international economics, the humanitarian message would be blunted. Worse, it would open up a credibility gap where experts would once more be talking to experts. Where solutions would once again be seen as beyond the reach of individuals and solely the responsibility of governments. Somehow we must ensure that famine remains on the conscience of us all as individuals and we do not merely pass this particular concern back to government. That is a recipe for continued inertia.

The British public bought more copies of the Brandt Report than any other country in the world. But for all that, the Report’s impact has been marked by a public acquiescence in the persistent lowering of the official aid budget in real terms and the flaunting of all the most important of its recommendations.

It was left to individuals, shocked and stunned by seeing in their own sitting rooms children starve on the BBC films, to respond with magnificent generosity. It is that impulse of spontaneous concern that must now be retained and built on so that we do not allow the implications of this famine to be forgotten.

It is far more likely that the important message of the need to enfranchise the world poor through low-cost credit will appeal to individuals in the West. It is now they who must convince their governments. The individual moved by humanitarian concern is far more likely to sense that an approach based on self-help will provide the incentive and restore human dignity. That it represents a more hopeful and indeed more realistic strategy than relying solely on the bureaucrats of government and international institutions.

The description of the herder’s associations with a $6000 loan used as revolving credit and with a $4500 cereal credit demonstrates that, like other business people, if they have the money to replace their animals which represent their capital, they can prevent their enterprise running down. All over Africa there is immense scope for such local credit to end the impoverishment of the small farmer. Top-down agricultural theories on their own are totally insufficient to overcome the present crisis.

The urban orientation of African governments, the dominance of the capital city, the lack of a critical press reporting on the state of the rural economy and the absence, sometimes, of democratic pressure all contribute to the present crisis. For the future development of Africa to succeed, these factors must change as well. No strategy to eradicate famine can ignore them. We must think afresh and be far readier to challenge the conventional wisdoms. If this report fuels the debate, restores a sense of realistic hope and revives a mood of ‘can do’ optimism, then it will have made the contribution those of us associated with it hope for.

David Owen