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Opinions of Friday, 29 November 2002

Columnist: Mahama, John

Malthus And Africa

In secondary school, economics was my favourite subject. I particularly enjoyed applied economics. Of all the theories of economics, the one I enjoyed the most was the Malthusian theory of population.

Thomas Robert Malthus, the British political economist, was born in 1766. He studied at the Jesus College in Cambridge, where he distinguished himself in classics and mathematics. He joined the church and in 1798 was made curate at Albury in Surrey. In that same year he published anonymously, the work for which he has now become famous, ”Essay on the principle of population as it affects the future improvement of society.”

Malthus published other works such as “Principle of Political Economy with a view to their practical implementation.” However none of these other works have received as much attention and fame as his essays on population. In a simplified interpretation of his theory, Malthus’ postulated that while population grows at a geometric ratio, food supplies grow at an arithmetic ratio. He explained that with time population growth far outstrips food supplies and this leads to famine, wars, sickness and disease, which in turn helps to cull the population and return it to sustainable levels.



As students of economics at the O’ and A’ levels, we took particular pride in engaging in the intellectual discourse of disproving Malthus’ theory. We argued that new improvements in agricultural technology have helped to keep food supplies at pace with population growth, and that indeed in much of the developed world, food supplies had actually outstripped the growth of the population. We argued that in the developed world population growth was declining and this was contrary to Malthus’ theory. There was also the argument that with advances in technology in respect of communications, and the transport industry, it had become possible to shift large quantities of surplus food from one part of the globe to other parts where it was more desperately needed.

We however conceded that for parts of Africa and the developing world, the Malthusian theory was becoming a reality.

As I write, the Malthusian theory is playing out in parts of Eastern and Southern Africa. The current famine in parts of this region is developing into a humanitarian tragedy of momentous proportions. Almost 15 million people in six countries are under threat of starvation. Poor rainfall patterns have led to two bad crop seasons. This has exhausted maize stocks in several countries. Maize is the main staple in most of Eastern and Southern Africa. The worst affected countries are Zimbabwe, Zambia and Malawi. Other countries affected to a lesser degree are Angola, Mozambique, Swaziland, Lesotho and the DRC. Ethiopia, which over the decades has given some of the grimmest pictures of starvation, is also once again on the brink of a major food deficit.

The distinguishing feature of this current famine is the deadly combination of hunger with HIV/AIDS. This deadly cocktail could claim a much higher toll than in previous famines. Much of Eastern and Southern Africa are HIV/AIDS hotspots and malnutrition caused by food shortages could make many HIV positive people progress more quickly from just being positive to falling sick with the AIDS disease. Hunger will also make many AIDS patients already with weakened immune systems succumb to the disease.

How the world reacts to this tragedy will indicate whether the theory of Malthus is still a fallacy or a reality. For indeed while these people starve, there are ‘rivers of milk’ so to speak and ‘mountains of rice’ in some countries. How quickly these stocks are shifted to alleviate the famine in the affected areas will determine how many people will survive this tragedy in Africa.

While poor rainfall is principally to blame for this shortfall in food production, many other factors have played a role in bringing about this famine.

In Zimbabwe, the politics of land reform has taken a toll on agricultural production. While land reform is necessary to address the imbalance of land distribution in the country, the reckless manner in which President Mugabe has approached this issue has led to quite significant dislocation of commercial agriculture. This has caused a sorry situation in which Zimbabwe, once the largest producer of maize on the continent, has become a net importer of the crop.

In other countries such as the DRC and Angola, years of civil war have sapped the nations’ agricultural energies. In Angola huge swathes of prime agricultural lands cannot be used because they are covered by land mines. Starvation is currently reported in the camps set up for disarming UNITA fighters. This poses a threat to the peace process if not handled expeditiously.

In all this however, poor planning, policy failure and corruption are partly to blame for the famine. Restructuring of economies whereby adequate capacity is built in the private sector in order that adequate stocks of food can be imported in the event of a shortfall is critical. Governments must also plan and make realistic forecasts of their agricultural production levels and make advance preparation for food imports to make up for any deficits in production. In Angola, allegations that almost $5 billion of oil revenues have been diverted into private bank accounts gives much cause for worry. This $5 billion could fund food imports for the entire region for more than one year.

Images of shrunken infants emaciated by hunger no longer have the powerful effect they had on citizens of the developed countries in the 1970s and early 80s. Recurring humanitarian tragedies in Africa have created immunity in the minds of the people of the developing world. They are no longer moved by the shocking images of starvation. It has become a part of their in-built image of Africa. Indeed for a lot of them this is more the norm than the exception. Donor fatigue has also set in and so governments of these countries do not react as promptly as before in providing food relief. Revelations of corruption by African leaders who stash millions, indeed billions of dollars, away in foreign banks has whittled away most of what sympathy is left for Africa. It is estimated that with these monies Africa could eradicate the problem of hunger on the continent.

In Ghana our greatest tango with famine was in the 1983 period. A particularly bad rainfall season led to a major deficit in food production. There was a shortage of every conceivable food crop. There was the ironic situation where even though people had money, the food was just not available to buy. People were compelled to buy raw kenkey (a maize meal) and take it home to boil themselves for fear of losing out if they allowed the sellers to fully cook the kenkey. People resorted to experimenting with all kinds of leaves and other vegetation in order to satisfy the pangs of hunger.

The structure of the economy did not help matters. A controlled foreign exchange and import regime meant that government was solely responsible for the amount of resources that were available for supplementary food imports. Restructuring of the Ghanaian economy commenced with the Economic Recovery Programme (ERP) in 1984. The liberalized foreign exchange and import trade regime has ensured that the bulk of supplementary food imported into this country is done by the private sector. Indeed there is now talk of over-liberalization whereby food imports threaten to swamp local food production. Since the great famine of 1983, Ghana has gone through several years where the rainfall pattern has been disappointing. In 1998, low rainfall led to a steep drop in the level of water in the Volta Lake. This shortfall in rain caused dislocation of energy production but did not lead to famine.

There have been sporadic food deficits in the 3 Northern Regions over the years. While these have been nowhere near the current situation in Eastern and Southern Africa, they have required a shift of relief food assistance financed principally from domestic budget sources to these areas.

For Ghana the principal challenge now is how to balance out this food supply system in order not to create an over-dependence on imported food. This threat is becoming real in the poultry and rice sectors. Cheap and often subsidized imports are swamping the local market and threatening to disrupt local production completely. While the answer is not to block such importation or slap punitive tariffs on the imports, some help to domestic producers in the form of minimum guaranteed prices, carefully targeted subsidies, and access to credit are some of the steps that can help Ghana to compete. Revitalizing of the commercial farming sector is also necessary. This must be preceded by radical land reform to make viable tracts of land available for interested medium and large scale farming enterprises.

Malthus’ theory so far does not pose a threat to Ghana and most of her West African neighbours. However if we do not arrest the current rate of desertification and also take steps to remove the obstacles hindering our agricultural growth, it could become a spectre we have to contend with in the not too distant future.


Views expressed by the author(s) do not necessarily reflect those of Ghanaweb.