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Hopes & Threats

12 Apr 2012
A conversation with Professor Per Pinstrup Andersen,
Professor Per Pinstrup Andersen talks to James Elder about the structural changes which must occur if famines are to end, and the deadly curve ball that is climate change.

UNICEF: Can nutritional crises and famine be eradicated from Africa?
Professor Pinstrup Andersen (PA): I think it can be done. It's going to take a long time. It's going to take a lot of investment and priority-setting on the part of donor country governments, and by African governments.

UNICEF: Is there sufficient commitment?
PA: I think there is blame to be placed on both sides. It is much easier to sell a response to an emergency to the policy-makers and the public, say in the UK or Denmark, than to get money to invest in things that won't pay off for another five, ten, 20 years. Investment in roads for example - roads in rural areas of Africa - those investments are very large. I think we from outside are partly guilty in focusing on immediate problems, the problems requiring immediate solutions, but having said that we can't sit back and let children die in the short term while we are trying to fix the problems in the long term.
We're going to need a combination of short and long term solutions. We need to put in place a better system of helping people in the short term when the emergencies hit, such as that in the Sahel today, and then we need to make investments in all infrastructures, in research, in institutions, in order to make the structural changes that are necessary.

UNICEF: Talk to me about structural changes.
PA: This is about investing in the infrastructure that is needed in that region including irrigation facilities, roads, farmer institutions, farmer organizations and access to credit. Unfortunately the crisis in the Horn of Africa has not resulted in structural changes there, nor elsewhere. This is very unfortunate and these kinds of emergencies will continue to happen until structural changes are made.
Unless those structural changes are made we will continue to have emergencies every time the weather misbehaves. And of course with the failure to deal with climate change we will continue to have extreme weather events including those that we have seen in many parts of Africa in the last few years, and we'll continue to have to deal with those emergencies until governments decide to invest in the structural changes that are needed. And these structural changes are expensive and require commitment to long-term change.

UNICEF: You mentioned climate change. These nutritional emergencies and famines no longer look cyclical.
PA: Absolutely - they are no longer cyclical. They are now very much driven by climate change, extreme weather events. I have talked to a very large number of people who understand what's going on at all levels in Africa and they are all saying that the rains no longer come when they used to come, and if they come, they come in such large quantities that they basically ruin what is in the field and often they come too late, so that seeds won't sprout. I am raising this because what we read in the newspapers, what we hear in the news media is about the large droughts in Australia, the large floods in Pakistan, and the droughts in Russia and so on … what we don't hear is that the rains can no longer be predicted, everything has to do with climate change as far as I can tell and unless we put in place risk management, or the management of uncertainties, the tools that farmers need and the communities need, we will constantly be faced with these emergencies.
I want to stress this - we are no longer targeting out regular droughts, we are talking about totally unpredictable droughts and floods and strong winds and we are apparently not quite ready to do anything about climate changes, so this extremely bad weather will eventually become worse. So unless we put in place the structural changes, the emergencies will be more frequent and more grave, and organizations such as UNICEF are going to be more and more stretched in dealing with more and more of these emergencies.

UNICEF: How do you see the future then when it comes to nutritional crises, famine and livelihoods for the Sahel and Horn of Africa?
PA: I am an optimist. I wouldn't be in this business if I wasn't. I see some countries doing the things required to promote poverty alleviation, hunger alleviation and better nutrition. But we still need governments to respond earlier than they normally do so that the safety net kind of approach can be applied before the kids are already seriously malnourished; it's a preventive approach.
Right now a lot of children need immediate attention in the Sahel. In the longer term - and we simply cannot keep ignoring the longer term - it's essential to give poor rural people access to markets, access to inputs and outputs to help them to organize themselves, be it in farmers' associations or infrastructures and institutions. If the small farmers in Africa aren't helped to solve the problems outside their own farming then of course you haven't done anything, because the farmers can't get additional production to market, they cannot buy fertilisers if that's what they need. But I think improving infrastructures will get us a long way all by itself.

UNICEF: Is there such a thing as a magic bullet when it comes to preventing famines and nutritional crises?
PA: No. I think it's a very comprehensive approach that is needed, but I do think improving infrastructures will get us a long way all by itself. Let me give you just an example: there are large numbers of projects such as the cassava project, the one acre farm, the millennium villages - projects that can remove the external constraints the farmers face and in these I have mentioned farmers have tripled or quadruplicated the production per unit of land or per unit of water without any additional technology or research. In other words those projects remove those constraints the farmers are faced with and those are the constraints that can only be removed with structural changes.
However, these projects only remove those constraints artificially because they say we are going to buy what you produce, we are going to subsidize you fertilisers, we are going to give you credit, we are going to remove all the market constraints, the infrastructure constraints, we are going to make sure that what you produce you can sell and we will help you to get it out. Then when the projects end the farmers go right back to where they were at the beginning because there was no structural change.
This is another bandage solution and we do bandage solutions all over the place. The people we are trying to help do get benefit as long as the bandage works, but when the bandage is no longer good - meaning when the projects are over - they are right back to where they were before. It is a horrible way of doing things and we got into that because we use so much of our resources on short-term emergencies, and not on longer term change. We didn't do the right thing 20, 30, 40 years ago in Africa. We did [the right thing] in parts of Asia, we did it in Korea, it was done in Taiwan, it was done in Indonesia. Therefore they are in a totally different situation right now.

UNICEF: How can research contribute to the issue and what are the main gaps you have seen in knowledge that additional research could help to plug?
PA: I would place the highest priority in the area of research on agricultural research to deal with the problems caused by extreme weather events and other climate change aspects. That means, for example, helping to develop drought tolerant crop varieties that will survive under some kinds of flooding, crop varieties that would benefit from higher content of CO2 in the atmosphere. These are just examples, but the general point I am making is that there is a need for ad hoc agricultural research that will develop and adapt these kinds of crop varieties; adaptation is very important as well, so it isn't just something that should be done at one of the international centres and then left - it has to be taken all the way to the field.

Per Pinstrup Andersen is Professor of Food, Nutrition and Public Policy, and Professor of Applied Economics at Cornell University. He is past Chairman of the Science Council of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) and Past President of the American Agricultural Economics Association (AAEA).