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Annan: World Must Help African Nations Tackle Food Crisis

June 11, 2008 at 6:45 PM EST
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Fuel costs and supply shortages have caused a spike in food prices across Africa -- prompting calls for an agricultural revolution on the continent. Former U.N. chief Kofi Annan discusses efforts to address the crisis.
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GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight, tackling the food crisis in Africa. Nearly a billion people worldwide are hungry. The crisis has hit especially hard on the continent, where supply is a problem.

Today, the U.S. government announced a partnership with a private African organization to create more productive farming throughout the continent. The group is known as the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, and it’s headed by former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

Judy Woodruff sat down with him this afternoon in Washington, D.C.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Kofi Annan, it’s good to see you again. Thank you very much for talking with us.

KOFI ANNAN, Former U.N. Secretary-General: Happy to be with you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For those of us who are wondering what Kofi Annan’s been up to for the last two years since you’ve left the United Nations, tell us what this green revolution in Africa is all about.

KOFI ANNAN: The green revolution is an attempt to help African farmers increase their agricultural production and to help Africa assure its own food security.

Today, there’s lots of crises, lots of excitement and concern about the food prices and the shortages, and I’m really happy that the world is focusing on this particular issue.

But for Africa, this is not new. There has been a silent hunger for over the past 30 years. There are 200 million people today in Africa who don’t get enough to eat. You have 33 million children who are malnourished.

And so the idea is to work with the people and the governments of Africa to make sure we can contain and deal with this problem and resolve it once and for all.

And the idea is to work with other stakeholders to ensure that the African farmer gets the right seeds, seeds that are high-yield and pest-resistant, and ensure that the African soil, which is the most depleted, is improved, working with the African farmers, making fertilizers available to them, the right type of fertilizers, and working with them on the quantities they should use, on water management, on storage, and marketing, so all along the value chain.

Green revolution 'bypassed' Africa

JUDY WOODRUFF: Help us understand why it is, in 2008, that this is still a problem. People think of the agricultural revolution as having happened decades, centuries ago. Why is it so late coming to your continent?

KOFI ANNAN: The green revolution bypassed Africa. And, of course, the African green revolution is also much more complicated than the Latin American or the Asian one, because in Latin America and Asia, you are focused on one crop, rice in Asia and corn in Latin America.

In Africa, you have about 12 or more crops that you need to deal with: cassava, yams, plantains, sorghum, millets. And these are crops that we haven't done much research on.

And now we are using scientists, African scientists, training them, and there are some already doing very serious work to be able to improve the seeds, so that they can get better used.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You speak about how the continent of Africa is probably hardest hit by this global food crisis. What do you see as the main causes of the food crisis?

KOFI ANNAN: I think there are many causes. First of all, you have the high oil prices, which has impact on transportation cost. It has an impact on cost of fertilizers. The cost of fertilizer in some countries has quadrupled in a year.

Some farmers are planting a quarter or half of their land because they can't afford to buy the fertilizer at a time when they need to increase production.

You also have the question of biofuel. I know there's a debate about this, but, obviously, if you're diverting corn, which can be used for human consumption...

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ethanol here in the U.S.?

KOFI ANNAN: ... ethanol to fuel, you cannot claim that it has no impact on the availability of food or food prices.

But I think it's not entirely due to ethanol, but there are other factors and other forces, and, in the case of Africa, basically neglect of agriculture. And I think globally, also, we have been complacent.

World food trade distorted, unfair

JUDY WOODRUFF: With regard to the food crisis, especially what's facing Africa, what should the ordinary American know?

KOFI ANNAN: I think the ordinary American must know that there are people in other parts of the world who are starving, who go through daily hunger, and there's serious malnutrition around the world amongst children.

I think the average American should know that the world trading system is not fair. You take the area of agriculture. If U.S. farmers are getting huge subsidies, European farmers are getting huge subsidies and are competing on the global market with a farmer from Burkina Faso or Kenya, how do they compete?

I mean, take the issue of cotton. The U.S. cotton farmers here get lots of subsidies. The one in Burkina Faso gets nothing, but they're all trying to produce for the same international market. How do they compete?

JUDY WOODRUFF: The food conference, global food conference that occurred just last week, did it accomplish what you wanted to see accomplished?

KOFI ANNAN: I think it did one thing. It put the issue on the global agenda and made the leaders and the people realize we have a problem.

I don't know whether the conference did that or the strikes. You have strikes everywhere. You've had pasta strikes in Italy. You've had food strikes in Egypt, Indonesia. You have fuel strikes in almost three or four European countries today.

So the pressure from the people have really woken up the leaders. So I'm grateful that the issue is now front-and-center and nobody can get away from it.

What I don't want to see happen is for people to go home and think we've solved the problem if we are able to raise money to feed those who are hungry today. The problem is a structural one. We need to stick with the long term.

And we can, in the long term, with the right policies, assure food security, not just for Africa, but for the world.

Mugabe to blame for Zimbabwe's ills

JUDY WOODRUFF: Some of the discussion at that conference, as you know, was around one of the people who attended, the president of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, because of the huge economic crisis, political crisis, food crisis in his country. Can he be held accountable by other governments in Africa and around the world?

KOFI ANNAN: The situation in Zimbabwe is tragic. It is a country that had so much hope, a country that was a breadbasket of the region, and today is a basket case, with historic inflation rates that has not been seen anywhere.

They are going to have elections on the 27th of June. I pray and hope that those elections will be fair and clean. There are allegations of intimidation and violence.

What we need to do is to make sure that the elections are well-organized and that there are lots of observers to ensure that it is run competently. I think the people of Zimbabwe should be given the chance to speak out, and their votes and their voices must be respected.

Because of the way the first round was handled, there's great concern that the second round may go through the same sort of -- how should I put it -- manipulation.

I think it is important that the people of the country and the people in southern Africa work with the Zimbabweans to resolve this issue.

I mean, President Mugabe made a contribution, was a freedom fighter. He helped the country get its independence. But today the country is going through a very difficult period.

And most of the difficulties is laid firmly at his door. And after 28 years, I hope he'll be able to work with the people to assure the future, to assure reconciliation and healing, regardless of who wins this election in Zimbabwe on the 27th.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, finally, if those elections coming up are not fair in the way they're held is there something that can be done?

KOFI ANNAN: What I would want to say on this is that, if the elections are not fair, the Africans and the African leaders should hold the government to account and whoever comes to power without a fair election will not have the legitimacy that he deserves as a leader, neither in Africa or within the international community.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Kofi Annan, your excellency, thank you very much. We appreciate your talking with us.

KOFI ANNAN: Thank you. Happy to see you.