Africa's poor too far from summits and their agenda
By Andre Vltchek (China Daily)
Updated: 2009-07-09 07:45

Africa's poor too far from summits and their agenda

The dusty road connecting Ol Pejeta Conservancy in central Kenya with the rest of the world cuts through several humble villages. The vistas may be breathtaking, but the area is extremely poor. Small fields - growing mainly maize - are now dry and without farmers. This year, drought has devastated Kenya's agriculture, and several international organizations have warned that about a quarter of the country's population could soon face starvation.

Near the village of Yard, just 2 km from the gate to Ol Pejeta, a simple wooden cross was erected recently in the middle of a maize field. Several men are standing aimlessly near the road. One of them is James Mwangi, a former farmer, leaning on the wooden fence, with a bitter expression on his face. "I heard about the global recession," he says. "But it felt too distant. Now we can all feel its impact. We have no jobs, no money and almost no food."

The official agenda of the July 1-3 African Union (AU) summit held in the Libyan port city of Sirte was originally supposed to solve people's problems by increasing spending on agriculture in the continent. All countries and groups had carried their problems to the summit. But the agriculture and food crises were overshadowed by other urgent issues, especially the security issue in several African countries.

There was only marginal discussion on the impact of the global economic crisis on African countries at the AU summit. But the impact may actually be worst than most silent tragedies on the continent.

Just a few days before the beginning of the AU summit, allAfrica.com quoted Jacques Diouf, director-general of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), as saying: "The global economic crisis may push about 100 million people into poverty this year because of job loss and lower earnings, forcing one-sixth of the world's population to live in hunger."

Sub-Saharan Africa is often described as the poorest part of the world, suffering from the effects of economic mismanagement, corruption, and ethnic conflicts. Most of the world's least developed countries are in that region. According to FAO, about 265 million people (out of an estimated 800 million) in Sub-Saharan Africa are suffering from chronic hunger.

The region depends heavily on foreign aid, but the global economic crisis has dealt a big blow to donor nations and international organizations and NGOs themselves.

The economic crisis has slowed down the recovery of Rwanda, which is still battling to overcome the impact of the ethnic violence and genocide of the 1990's.

"For some time now local banks have been squeezing loans," explains Joseph Matsiko, UNESCO consultant on HIV and AIDS prevention education in Rwanda. "This is having a significant effect on the people. Our government recently warned that Rwanda, like the rest of the world, would be affected by the economic crisis. Generally, people are scared. As the local businesses are struggling, many people are affected."

In the largest slum in Africa - Kibera - in Kenya's capital of Nairobi, most of the people have given up hope of finding permanent or temporary jobs. Housing more than 1 million people, Kibera is now divided along tribal lines. But observed from above, the rusty tin roofs indicate that misery and gray hopelessness are the unifying factors of Kibera.

In a brief interview for this article, Mghanga Mwandawiro, general secretary of the Kenyan Social Democratic Party, says Kenya's poor had been hit hard by the global economic crisis. "We are experiencing everything from the collapse of our agriculture and industry to a dramatic decrease in remittances from our people who live in the US, the EU and the UK and who can't afford to send money back to Kenya anymore."

In Kampala, capital of neighboring Uganda, violence is less but the misery is comparable to that in Kenya. Slums can be now found even outside major cities. Port Bell on the Lake Victoria is now a place of depressed shanty towns and the large rotting ferries that used to sail proudly to all corners of this magnificent high-altitude body of water, a symbol of stagnation.

"The economic crisis has worsened the unemployment situation in Uganda. Today we have more people with university degrees who are out of job. This is contributing to the increase in crime and other social problems. Because of the crisis there has been a drop in foreign aid to Uganda," says Rosie Agoi, Assistant Secretary in the Ministry of Education.

With more than a quarter of the population in sub-Saharan Africa facing hunger, and their helplessness turning to wrath, and wrath to uncontrollable violence, hope is now in extremely short supply and the time for resurrecting it is running out. Perhaps now Africa will realize that it cannot rely on the outside world. The economic crisis began far away. It had nothing to do with Africa, but it has destroyed tens of millions of lives on this already impoverished continent.

The city of Sirte in Libya, however, seems far away from the recently erected wooden crosses in the dry maize fields in central Kenya. And the distance from maize fields and crosses to Sirte is the same.

The author is a US novelist, journalist, photographer and filmmaker, he has covered dozens of war zones from Bosnia and Peru to Sri Lanka and East Timor.

(China Daily 07/09/2009 page9)