Colonialism, Neo-Colonialism, and African Hunger

, by Raymond Lotta

Revolution #015, September 25, 2005, posted at

Harsh climate that brings droughts can cause massive human displacements. Other factors of nature, like the invasions of locusts that struck Niger, can intensify hunger. But the fundamental causes of Africa’s recent famines, including what is happening in Niger, are poverty, the larger economic and political structures responsible for that poverty, and decades of dependent, distorted, and environmentally destructive development. Here are some relevant facts:

1). Imperialism and environmental degradation.

When the European powers stepped up their colonization of Africa in the 19th century, they caused tremendous harm to traditional farming and herding practices. For centuries, local farmers had adapted to changing environmental conditions. In Niger, for example, small family groups migrated every year in order to allow the fragile land to regain fertility for future agricultural use. The Europeans (the French in the case of Niger) considered such farming techniques wasteful and unsuited to the export crops they hoped to cultivate. Throughout the African continent, the imperialists grabbed the choicest lands and reoriented production towards cash crops for export: like coffee, sugar cane, and cocoa. One immediate result was that food production for the poor majority was neglected.

At the same time, large-scale export agriculture led to massive environmental degradation. Western commercial interests cleared millions of acres of brush and trees for plantation agriculture. This removed a source of organic replenishment. In addition, intensive commercial farming of cotton, peanuts, tobacco, and other crops leached nutrients from the soil. Soil erosion, deforestation, and the expansion of desert resulted. Peasant farmers and nomadic farmers (people who move from place to place raising crops and animal herds) were pushed on to more marginal lands that became overgrazed and overexploited.

2). Market pressures and rewards.

Many peasants producing food were victims of land-grabbing by colonialism; others were squeezed out of farming (deliberately so) by taxes imposed by the Europeans; and many small farmers holding on to land found themselves unable to compete with commercial agro-interests. Market pressures were asserting themselves. Ruined and income-losing peasants were forced, if they were to survive, either to work on plantations producing export crops, or to migrate to rapidly growing and crowded cities to seek employment. This flow of people produced a dividend for capital: a cheap labor force. (In the case of Niger, the French succeeded in destroying much of traditional agriculture but failed in their attempts to create plantation-based export agriculture.)

3). Development policies favoring the cities and food aid that increases dependency.

In the post-World War 2 period, Africa’s cities grew chaotically, and the danger of urban unrest became a source of concern to the African elites and to the Western corporations and governments that propped them up. Policies were enacted to keep prices paid to farmers low—in order to provide cheap food to people in the cities and hopefully maintain stability. Cheap food policies were also a kind of subsidy to urban employers, enabling them to pay lower wages. Farmers had less “market incentive” (prices were low) to produce food crops, since their selling prices were kept low.

At the same time, Western investment and aid programs focused on large commercial agricultural interests, to the further detriment of small-scale subsistence agriculture. One of the aims of U.S. foreign aid programs in the post-World War 2 period has been to subsidize U.S. agricultural exports. What is presented as humanitarian assistance is in fact a program of “dumping”: U.S. food surpluses are sold cheap in Third World countries. This imported food undermines local farming; increases dependence on foreign food sources; and fuels black market re-sale of food products.

4). The Cold War.

From the late 1960s until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the rivalry between the imperialist United States and the social-imperialist Soviet Union heated up in Africa. The West engaged in huge arms transfer programs to various African states and pro-Western insurgent groups. This was for two purposes: to shore up pro-Western puppet governments against popular pressure, and to wage what were called “proxy wars.” In these wars, various African governments and local armed groupings functioned as stand-ins for the United States and its adversary, the Soviet Union. The military expenditures by African governments mushroomed, driving up debt. The “proxy wars” of the late 1970s and 1980s were fought in countries like Ethiopia, Somalia, Mozambique, and Angola. These wars destroyed life and ravaged rural areas and food production in considerable parts of the continent.

The West also lent money to underwrite “showcase development” schemes—like big dams, stadiums, and various urban development projects. These did little to promote balanced agricultural-industrial development but added to the debt strains of these economies and the claims placed on them by Western financial institutions.

The U.S. has also explicitly used food aid as a club. In 1965, a U.S. National Security Council memorandum stated: “U.S. aid should be used as a political weapon, with major assistance going to African friends of the U.S.” Countries that go along with U.S. foreign policy receive such aid; those that don’t are punished.

5). International Monetary Fund austerity programs.

African debt to Western financial institutions spiraled in the late 1970s and 1980s as world market prices for traditional African exports declined while prices of imported manufactured goods rose. Niger’s main export is uranium, whose world market price has generally been in decline over the last 25 years.

In the 1980s, imperialist-dominated lending institutions like the International Monetary Fund imposed austerity programs on many African countries. These were designed to extract debt repayment. Austerity measures included steep cuts in social services for the poor and middle classes, higher food prices, along with currency devaluations and various measures to further boost export production. In recent years, the West has pushed programs to expand production of agricultural and specialty fish products for export to wealthy overseas markets.

6). The ongoing horrors of capitalist globalization.

The film Darwin’s Night-mare tells the story of the export and processing of Nile perch in Tanzania. This predatory species of perch was introduced into Lake Victoria in the 1960s. Fishermen have migrated from famine-stricken inland areas. The perch is processed in modern factories by superexploited laborers who live in camps ravaged by AIDS. The frozen filets are flown to Europe in the same cargo planes that return with weapons to fuel the continuing wars in the region. Meanwhile, the nile perch is destroying the ecosystem of Lake Victoria.

So this is where the history and workings of imperialism have brought the people of Africa.

Selected Sources

Richard W. Franke and Barbara H. Chasin, Seeds of Famine: Ecological Destruction and the Development Dilemma in the West African Sahel.

Kevin Danaher and Abikok Riak, Myths of African Hunger.

Michael Maren, ed., The Road to Hell: The Ravaging Effects of Foreign Aid and International Charity.