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December 14, 2010

West Africa takes action on the food crisis

While the world's governments gathered in Cancún, ultimately failing to reach a meaningful multilateral commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to help save the planet, I was across the Atlantic in a different tropical country: Ghana. I was in Accra for a meeting organized by the Sahel and West Africa Club: a group of West African countries that meets under the auspices of the OECD.

The meeting was entitled Regional solidarity to address food crises. The discussion was focused on a single proposal, one already adopted in principle by West African governments under the auspices of ECOWAS (the Economic Community of West African States—the whole visit in Ghana was a veritable acronym soup, compounded by the use of two languages, English and French, so that the acronyms kept getting reshuffled in translation). The proposal is that the countries in the region sign an agreement by which any country in the group that faces a food emergency could call upon a regional food security reserve to help alleviate the crisis. The initial proposal is that countries earmark 5 percent of their grain reserves to be on call for emergencies anywhere in the region.

I was invited to chair the working session entitled, "Policy coherence and institutional arrangements at the regional and international levels." I was also a rapporteur, invited to provide a concluding summary of the outcomes of the 1.5 day meeting, together with Ousmane Djibo of the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD).

The idea seems simple. The grain reserves exist—a number of the cereal boards were represented in Accra—but not every country has one. The need exists (the region suffers from shortfalls on a regular basis, but it's not always the same countries and regions in need). The governments have acted spontaneously to share food in the recent past (with Niger, in 2008). Indeed, the governments have agreed they want this reserve to happen. There is money—both with ECOWAS, and in NEPAD's food security budget (which is 35 percent of its total program budget).

And yet, somehow, the idea has yet to find a champion. A country that is determined to knock the right heads together to move from aspiration to action. CILSS (a forum on desertification that provides technical support to ECOWAS), has done some important intellectual legwork but now we need a project document and a working plan for 2011. The meeting in Accra came up with plenty of elements for such a plan—in fact, an entire series of proposed next steps that would allow the idea to take concrete shape, if put in place. They include mapping the existing warehouses where stocks are held, creating a mechanism for regular information exchange on both stock and overall production levels in the region, and organizing a program of formal exchanges among the cereal boards within the region, so that the staff can start to learn how the different boards work. Finally, a pilot proposal and budget are needed so that the idea can start to be tested in practice. A summary report will be made available on the conference website soon.

Unfortunately, it is less clear whether the people able to make those steps happen are ready to act. 

Let's hope they are. If 2008 was the year of the food crisis that forced a rethink of food insecurity and how to tackle it, I'd like 2011 to the year governments transformed their policy and made changes that really make a difference. Right now the policy world is in love with technology fixes to raise productivity. We've been there before. It matters, but it is not enough. We also need to rethink how the state, farmers and the private sector interact. Done right, food stocks offer a powerful tool. I'll write soon about further meetings in Ghana on two other possibilities: warehouse receipts/warrantage systems and commodity exchanges.

Sophia Murphy

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