Elon Musk is right. Here’s why the UN cannot solve Africa’s hunger crisis.

Just days ago, David Beasley was a largely unknown figure. But now the United Nations World Food Program (WFP) Director has been thrown into the spotlight after being embroiled in a feisty war of words with Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla and SpaceX.

Musk had effectively become the world’s wealthiest individual following a rally in TSLA stock, and Beasley saw it as a perfect opportunity to shame billionaires like the Tesla boss into giving more to support his organization’s work. While speaking at CNN’s Connect the World with Becky Anderson, Beasley said that just 2% of Musk’s current net worth could solve world hunger. This translates to roughly $6 billion. “$6 billion to help 42 million people that are literally going to die if we don’t reach them. It’s not complicated,” the UN WFP director said. 

Musk, an intelligent yet combative figure on the online media sphere, clapped back defiantly, questioning the rationale behind such statistics and calling upon the UN WFP to open their accounts.

Undeniably, Africa is facing a hunger a crisis, which is increasing at an alarming rate. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the continent, 234 million Africans were chronically undernourished, more than in any other region. UN statistics indicate that 250 million people in Africa were experiencing hunger in 2020, nearly 20% of the population. Edgar Sandoval Sr., President and CEO of World Vision U.S. said at a recent release of the organization’s report on hunger in Africa, “The long-term harm of malnutrition on children’s development hinders their ability to achieve their God-given potential.”

The hunger crisis in Africa necessitates the rationale of having the World Food Program (WFP). The organization, with budgetary requirements of $15 billion, is governed by an Executive Board consisting of 36 member states that provide intergovernmental support, direction and supervision of WFP’s activities.

The WFP is part of an array of UN organizations that the continent highly relies upon to meet its basic needs. Africa is a net recipient of UN assistance, which far exceeds member state contributions. In the current year, just 27 African countries have paid their annual contributions to the United Nations Regular Budget.

On its website, the World Food Program has listed the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Sahel region, Southern Madagascar and South Sudan as priority areas for their work. With the exception of conflict zones in Yemen, Syria and Afghanistan, much of the WFP’s work is centered in Africa.

One crucial factor that largely goes ignored in the conversations on hunger is the cause. Drought is a natural phenomena that has existed not just in the continent but across planet Earth since it came into being. Meanwhile, famine is a man-made activity, occurring as result of government policy, conflict, economic changes, and even human destruction of the environment and water sources.

The 1984 famine in Ethiopia that killed 1.2 million people and evoked outpouring of sympathy across the world – Michael Jackson and some other notable artists famously sang We are the World to boost charity efforts – had its chief architect in Mengistu Haile Mariam. The Ethiopian leader used mass starvation as a counter insurgency strategy against the Tigray Peoples Liberation Forces (TPLF) guerillas, with devastating effects on civilians. Fast forward to 2021 and Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government has been accused of carrying out the same tactics against the Tigray community, as part of a wider scale configuration which bears the hallmarks of a genocide.

A group of Tigray refugees await aid donations. Courtesy: Daily Sabah

The situation is similar across Africa. Famine has become so recurrent to make you wonder if it will ever end. Only one solution is ever implemented, and that is to pour more and more money. While aid is efficient in lessening immediate suffering, it is not the solution in the long-run and never provides a stable platform for African countries to develop sustainably. Aid defendants always point out the success of the U.S.’s Marshall Plan in the late 1940s, but the amount of aid poured in Africa in the last twenty years alone ($1 Trillion) exceeds what Europe received at the time even accounting for inflation ($100 billion).

Aid has now become a feel good factor. It is the barometer through which richer governments are judged, and famous faces don’t stop campaigning in plead for it, despite the dearth in significant accomplishments in eliminating poverty and hunger. Since the 1950s, traditional development economics has been dominated by the idea that large donations is the solution to the savings gap in developing countries but evidence shows that large influxes of foreign aid can end up doing more harm than good. 

An analysis of the economic growth in Asia over the past decades, which has received little foreign aid in comparison to Africa and has twice the population, is a good starting point. Reports from the World Bank show that out of the 700 million people who were pulled out of poverty between 1981 and 2010, 627 million of them were in China. That leaves us with 73 million throughout the rest of the world. In other words, 89.6% were from China, giving us a clear indication that foreign aid isn’t the answer.

“Few will deny that there is a clear moral imperative for humanitarian and charity-based aid to step in when necessary, such as during the 2004 tsunami in Asia. Nevertheless, it’s worth reminding ourselves what emergency and charity-based aid can and cannot do,” Dambisa Moyo, a Zambian economist and author wrote in the Wall Street Journal. “Aid-supported scholarships have certainly helped send African girls to school (never mind that they won’t be able to find a job in their own countries once they have graduated). This kind of aid can provide band-aid solutions to alleviate immediate suffering, but by its very nature cannot be the platform for long-term sustainable growth.”

Africa as a whole receives roughly $50 billion of international assistance annually. Over the past 60 years at least $1 trillion of development-related aid has been transferred from rich countries to Africa. Yet real per-capita income today is lower than it was in the 1970s, and more than 50% of the population — over 350 million people — live on less than a dollar a day, a figure that has nearly doubled in two decades.

In Ethiopia, where aid constitutes more than 90% of the government budget, a mere 2% of the country’s population has access to mobile phones. (The African country average is around 30%.) In Burkina Faso, Somalia, Mali, Chad, Mauritania and Sierra Leone from 1970 to 2002, over 70% of total government spending came from foreign aid, according to figures from the World Bank.

Even Rwanda, whose President Paul Kagame is a chief campaigner of the “independence and sovereignty” of Africa, still relies heavily on foreign aid. 73% of Kigali’s government expenses are covered by foreign assistance, primarily from Europe and America.

“The 1970s were an exciting time to be African. Many of our nations had just achieved independence, and with that came a deep sense of dignity, self-respect and hope for the future.” An excerpt from Dambisa Moyo’s book: Dead Aid: Why Aid is Not Working and How There is a Better Way for Africa.

In 2005, just weeks ahead of a G8 conference that had Africa at the top of its agenda, the International Monetary Fund published a report entitled “Aid Will Not Lift Growth in Africa.” The report cautioned that governments, donors and campaigners should be more modest in their claims that increased aid will solve Africa’s problems. Despite such comments, no serious efforts have been made to wean Africa off this debilitating drug.

And that is why Elon Musk’s Twitter rebuttals to the UN WFP Director’s call for more aid is significant. More aid will never stop the hunger crises Africa faces.

One possible solution lies in mitigating the population growth rate. A credible argument can be made that more aid has only fueled the rapid rise of Africa’s birthrate, which could explain why per capita incomes have fallen from the 1970s. Today, the continent holds 27 out of 30 countries with the highest birth rates. And by 2050, Africa’s population is predicted to double and exceed 2 billion.

Mitigating population growth, stabilizing the continent, and proper governance, could be key in ensuring food security of the continent. Not more foreign aid.

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