Tuesday, November 24, 2009

African Women Receiving Their Due

This will be the last column in November because of the Thanksgiving holiday and my participation in an election observation in Equatorial Guinea, which I expect to report on next week.

The African woman survives despite the overwhelming odds against her. They are the backbone of African economies, comprising an estimated 70% of informal economies, which typically are more than two-thirds of the entire economy in African countries. She is the primary producer of agricultural products, which are the overwhelming non-oil product in Africa and operates as the primary seller of those products. African women also play a major role in many peace-making and peace-maintaining efforts on the ground.

However, African women also bear the brunt of conflict, becoming the overwhelming percentage of victims of rape and death. Maternal death rates and the rate of women suffering serious complications during pregnancy in Africa remain among the highest in the world. The global economic crisis has especially limited the ability of African women to accumulate capital for business and has lessened their household incomes.

Still, African women overcome. After failing in her first attempt to win the presidency, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf became the first elected woman President in Africa. Countries such as Gambia (Aja Isatou-Njie-Saidy) and Zimbabwe (Joice Majuru) have female Vice-Presidents, and women hold senior government positions in other African countries, including Prime Minister and Speaker of the Parliament. The previous tendency to limit women politicians to heading women’s departments or other social service posts is disappearing.

In 2000, the United Nations approved Resolution 1325, which recognized the important role African women are playing in the prevention and resolution of conflicts and the pursuit of enduring peace. A recently-launched initiative calls for African women to receive a collective Nobel Peace Prize for their work in preserving the peace in some of Africa’s most difficult situations.

The 2009 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award was just given to Magodonga Mahlangu and Jenni Williams of Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA) for their leadership of an organization that has led the fight against the tyrannical rule of President Robert Mugabe. Often WOZA was the only organization with the courage to stand up for their rights, shaming male opposition leaders in Zimbabwe. As President Barack Obama said at the awards ceremony, “They have been gassed, abducted, threatened with guns, and badly beaten – forced to count out loud as each blow was administered. Three thousand WOZA members have spent time in custody or in prison, sometimes dragged with their babies into cells.”

Mahlangu, who has been arrested 30 times in the last seven years for peaceful protests, told the award audience: “These arrests to do deter us because WOZA has empowered us to believe that we deserve better. We deserve to have a roof over our head, food in our stomachs, our children in schools and the nation working.”

While not always as noted, many women have been at the forefront of the struggle for peace and justice in Africa – from Zainab Bangura in Sierra Leone to Martha Karua in Kenya. In fact, so many African women have played a critical role in peace and justice movements all across Africa that the collective Nobel Peace Prize makes a lot of sense.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Making AGOA Work Better

When I attended the August 2009 AGOA Forum in Nairobi, Kenya, I heard complaints from African participants that the African Growth and Opportunity Act was not as effective as it could be because its term needed to be extended, and its coverage of products needed to be expanded. U.S. government officials responded that AGOA had already been expanded to 2015 and that relatively few of the more than 6,400 tariff lines were being used currently by Africans. This disparity is the result of a disconnect on the how and why of AGOA that must be corrected.

African producers aren’t taking full advantage of AGOA, but we have made it unnecessarily difficult to do so. The U.S. government has extended AGOA, but what officials see as a long extension is too short for business people asked to make longer-term investments. African governments have been too slow to make the necessary adjustments to enable their producers to better compete on the world market, including trade preference compliance issues and internal trade process issues.

If AGOA is to work as effectively as we had hoped, I recommend the following steps be taken:

o AGOA is based on the Generalized System of Preferences, which also is subject to periodic renewal. The U.S. government should make AGOA and GSP permanent subject to review to remove the reluctance to source products in Africa. All of our reasonable requirements can be maintained to determine which countries should continue to benefit from AGOA even as the overall program continues.

o The U.S. government should support infrastructure programs to lower costs for African producers to reach U.S. markets. For example, the German Marshall Fund and the Hewlett Foundation are working on a Development Corridors program to stimulate the expansion of existing and creation of new transportation structures to allow African products, especially those produced by smallholder farmers, to be brought to market.

o The U.S. government should target capacity building on U.S. trade rules and processes to the African private sector, African government officials and African civil society together. Governments must understand how to make the playing field level, while the private sectors understands the rules under which they must operate and civil society plays watchdog on the whole process.

o The U.S. government should eliminate existing product exclusions under AGOA, which are primarily in agricultural products. This would have negligible impact on American agricultural competitiveness, but would be of great benefit to African agricultural producers, who comprise such a high percentage of African productive capacity.

o Using its taxation authority, the U.S. government should create tax incentives to stimulate economic development by encouraging American investment in non-extractive, labor-intensive sectors such as the agriculture and hospitality industries in Africa, as well as encouraging shipping companies to provide adequate transportation options to African exporters.

o In order to assist in the African process of regionalization, U.S. government aid programs should take into account the regional impact of single-country grants and create regional grants to help Regional Economic Communities better facilitate the creation of regional markets that are more attractive destinations for U.S. investment and product sourcing and more efficient exporters of African products. Manchester Trade, a trade facilitation firm, has a Partnership for African Economic Growth and Opportunity proposal for facilitating African regional and international trade that should be examined for its U.S. policy implications.

Government, the private sector and civil society have worked together thus far to make AGOA work as well as it has. If we continue to work together, we can remove the obstacles that prevent it from working as well as we want.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Copenhagen Showdown Looming

The major developed countries have come to consensus that they have no agreement on climate change. Coming out of the Barcelona (Spain) climate change talks last week, there is no framework for agreement on the level of cuts in carbon emissions, money to be spent to address the impact of climate change on the developing world or on the management of the global fund on climate change. Meanwhile, African and other developing country officials and activists are becoming increasingly unwilling to abide continued delay in reaching a binding agreement on climate change. As a result, next month’s meeting of 192 countries in Copenhagen, Denmark, appears headed for serious conflict.

The critical element in the current deadlock arises in the United States, where Congress, primarily the Senate, is unable to come to agreement on climate change legislation before the Copenhagen meeting. Consequently, President Barack Obama has said he is unwilling to make a binding commitment on the United States. Such a premature commitment could derail efforts to pass the Administration’s climate change plan by building resentment among members of Congress who would feel their authority had been preempted. In the absence of a U.S. commitment, the other major developed nations are reluctant to enter into a binding agreement.

The Barcelona talks and their aftermath revealed significant differences among the developing economies on how to tackle climate change. Wealthy country pledges on cuts in carbon emissions range from Norway’s 30% to Japan’s 25% to the European Union’s 20% to the United States’ 14-20% to Russia’s 10-15% to Canada’s 6%. Aside from being vastly different in the amount of emissions cuts, there is no consensus on a target date to achieve these goals. Lumumba D-Aping, the Sudanese chair of the Group of 77 developing nations, said developed countries must cut emissions by at least 40% by 2020. “Anything south of 40% means Africa is destroyed,” Di-Aping said.
Developing countries also are supposed to pledge to cut emissions by 2020. Indonesia has pledged to cut emissions by 26%, China by 20% and Mexico by 8%. As for African countries, few, if any, African countries are ready to make significant pledges of cuts in carbon emissions without a guarantee of international financial support. Moreover, there is inconsistent and allegedly unreliable information on climate change’s impact on such areas as water supplies.

On the matter of financing of climate change efforts, African and other developing countries insist on a fund of US$400 billion a year, while the European Union is pledging at most €100 billion Euros a year. There is no consensus among the world’s other major economies on the level of support for climate change programming. Furthermore, there is no developed country-developing country agreement on who will manage these funds. Di-Aping said his group wants the United Nations to manage the funds, while the World Bank is apparently preferred by developed nations.
The United States and other developed countries want to postpone an agreement on climate change programming. At the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Singapore this past weekend, the chairman of the Copenhagen conference, Danish Prime Minister Lars Lokke, said a full, international agreement on climate change was definitely not possible by next month and that the goal should be an agreement before the current Kyoto treaty expires in 2012.

Not all developing country leaders refuse to accept delay in order to push for consensus on an effective climate change policy. Bruno Sekoli of Lesotho is chair of the Group of Least Developed Countries, and he said it is more important to take the time to negotiate a comprehensive, binding arrangement on climate change mitigation. “We do not want a compromise deal, “ Sekoli said. “If it takes a year, even two years, then we will continue talking. A bad deal is not a good deal for Africa or vulnerable countries.”

A deal that slows the impact of desertification in Africa, halts the erosion of coastlines and reverses the disastrous cycle of drought and flood will take work on both sides. African governments will have limited ability to press their case without solid information on the impact of climate change, and any position on the carbon emission cuts in the developed world has to be based on science appropriate to African circumstances. Rigid positions expressed as ultimatums will not be helpful in this situation. Meanwhile, no part of the world is more affected by climate change than Africa. Island nations such as Seychelles face a steadily rising sea and could disappear at some point at current rates of sea rise. Consequently, inordinate delay by developed countries in coming to agreement on a climate change response will not be taken lightly by Africans – nor should it be.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Tracing the 3 Ts from Congo

The Democratic Republic of the Congo, formerly known as Zaire, has known few periods of peace and stability since becoming independent on June 30, 1960. The brutal Belgian colonial rule of Congo led to a bloody separation, causing many foreigners to flee and a United Nations peacekeeping force to be installed. In 1964, rebels declared a “People’s Republic” in what is now Kisangani. Belgian military forces quelled the rebellion within three months. The next few decades saw a repressive, corrupt regime in power under the late Mobutu Sese Seko. Thirty years after the Kisangani revolt, refugees from Rwanda’s genocide brought on two rounds of an internationalized civil war and ethnic violence that persists in eastern Congo today.

The Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda operate in eastern Congo, as does the Rally for Congolese Democracy-Goma and Banyamulengue militia. Numerous militia groups operate in and around Ituri, and Mai-Mai rebels are operating in northern Katanga . Many of these groups control mines from which the 3 Ts – tin, tungsten and tantalum – are mined. These minerals, along with gold, are the key ingredients of the electronic equipment our society has become dependent on: cell phones, personal computers, iPods, MP3 players, etc. Armed groups in Congo earned an estimated US$180 million from the mineral trade last year. So as we use our 21st century arsenal of communications and entertainment equipment, our purchases are enabling these rebels and militia to continue their murders, rapes and robberies.

The Enough campaign announced earlier this year a 3Ts campaign to highlight the deadly impact of this trade. Enough’s John Prendergast and Sasha Lezhnev of the Grassroots Reconciliation Group travelled to Congo recently and examined the supply chain for these minerals to determine what has made it so difficult to shut down the profiteering of these minerals by armed groups in Congo.

They found that of the 13 major mines in eastern Congo, 12 are controlled by armed groups. Other mines are operated by the Congolese army, which is a violation of the country’s mining laws. In rebel mines, workers are forced to labor, including children, and many workers are abused. While the other mines may not be as brutal toward their labor force, they also adhere to no health or safety standards and pay as little as US$1 a day to their workers.

Once mined, the 3 Ts minerals to go Bukavu and Goma, while gold goes mostly to Butembo and Uvira. The 3Ts must be transported by truck or plane, and you think it would be easier to control their flow, but Prendergast and Lezhnev found that the majority of transporters (often rebel groups) and trading houses operate outside the law. Even though they found that it is relatively easy to determine the source of minerals based on different coloration and texture based on the source mine, there is insufficient regulation to make this work.

Export companies are required to register with the government, but their method of determining the source of minerals they buy is to merely ask the seller whether their goods are from conflict mines. There is no system of confirming what the seller says.

The Congolese government told Prendergast and Lezhnev that the country legally exported only 270 pounds of gold, but gold production was estimated to be 11,000 pounds of gold. Rebels, therefore, reaped the lion’s share of profit from the gold trade.

Exported minerals go to Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi. In Uganda and Burundi, buying houses are unregulated, and in Rwanda, Congolese minerals are mixed with minerals from Rwandan mines. Buying houses, Prendergast and Lezhnev found, rarely ask questions about where the minerals come from. Moreover, in Uganda and Burundi, the army and police provide security for the minerals, taking a cut of the profits.
The mineral refining is done mostly in East Asian countries such as China, but also include Germany, the United States, Russia, Austria, Switzerland, Italy, Belgium and Dubai. At metal processing companies, Congolese minerals are smelted or chemically processed with metals from other countries. At this point, it is impossible to determine whether or how much of the finished product comes from Congo.

Electronics companies claim they buy the end product and can’t be expected to prove it is not the product of materials from conflict regions. However, the International Tin Research Institute, an association of major tin smelters, has initiated a process to improve due diligence on the sourcing of illegal tin from Congo. Why then can’t other companies at least try to ensure that they aren’t participating in a chain of production that is fueling war and abuse of people in Congo?

Until we consumers make a fuss, these companies won’t think this is important enough to make that effort. Civil society organizations such as Enough are to be commended for their efforts in this regard, but it is up to consumers to keep in mind the suffering Congolese people when we make that next cell phone call, boot up our personal computer or download music onto our MP3 player. We have to call or write the producers of our electronic equipment and insist they do a better job of guaranteeing that the materials in our machines don’t contribute to war in Congo.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Defending Against Africa’s Biggest Enemy

Irony is evident in many situations facing Africa, but no situation presents more irony than the fact that Africa’s biggest enemy is the tiny Anopheles mosquito. It is only an infected female anopheles that can transmit malaria, which kills hundreds of millions of people worldwide annually. Ninety percent of those who die from malaria each year are African, and at least one million of them are children.

The vast majority of malaria victims are children under five years of age. The disease often causes cognitive impairment in children, causing permanent brain damage. In older victims, the alternating states of coldness and fever impair people to the extent that they become unable to be productive workers. Thus malaria is not just a symptom of poverty; it is a cause of poverty.

Now there may be hope for stemming the terrible impact of malaria beyond indoor spraying and chemically-treated bed nets. At the recent fifth Multilateral Initiative on Malaria Pan African Conference in Kenya, a great deal of enthusiasm was expressed for a malaria vaccine drug developed by GlaxoSmithKline – RTS,S. The drug is in its final stage of testing in seven African countries: Burkina Faso, Gabon, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique and Tanzania. This is the world’s largest-ever trial of a malaria vaccine. According to the Nigerian publication Leadership, the research centers were selected “for their track record of world-class clinical research, strong community relations and commitment to meeting the highest international ethical, medical clinical and regulatory standards.

Participants in the Kenya malaria conference also discussed the potential of traditional African herbal medicines to prevent malarial devastation in Africa. Traditional medicine is seen as an alternative to drugs produced by pharmaceutical companies. It is pointed out that many Africans can’t afford such medicine, which is often not available to rural populations at any price. Traditional medicines are used elsewhere quite effectively. B.N. Prakash, a researcher at the Foundation for the Revitalization of Local Health in Bangalore, India, told the conference that medicinal plants have been used with great success in his country, demonstrating “a 5-10 times reduction in malaria-related deaths among communities who use traditional medicinal plants like guduchi (a plant found in India).”

Some of the conference participants raised caution on two fronts. First, traditional medicines are often not well tested to prove their effectiveness, and some traditional healers use medicines without standardizing doses or concentrations. Second, the disintegration of health care systems in African countries means there is no guarantee that drugs will be handled professionally so that improper storage can reduce the effectiveness of any drug.

Hopefully, these problems can be addressed because the enemy is trying to overcome current preventative methods. According to researchers at the malaria conference, Anopheles mosquitoes are changing their habits by feeding earlier in the evening before people go to bed under treated nets. Furthermore, many mosquitoes are showing signs of developing resistance to the insecticides used in treat nets, especially chemicals derived from pyrethrum. Consequently, the quicker the vaccine can be certified and distribution methods perfected the better. Millions of lives depend on the speed and effectiveness of this effort.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Pushing China on Sudan Action

President Barack Obama is scheduled to meet with Chinese President Hu Jintao soon, and activist groups in America and members of Congress are urging him to join the international campaign to pressure the Government of Sudan to end human rights abuses in Darfur. China, now Sudan’s biggest foreign trading partner, has struck a bargain with that government in which Sudan has access to Sudan’s oil supplies, and China provides cover in the United Nations Security Council against effective international sanctions on the Khartoum government.

In a congressional letter to President Obama, Representatives Frank Wolf and Michael Capuano referred to the Administration’s newly expressed Sudan policy and called on the President to make Sudan a focal point of his discussions with the Chinese government. “Failure to exert sufficient public pressure on China regarding its relationship with Khartoum will send a signal to the rest of the world that the United States places other interests ahead of achieving peace in Sudan. If that happens, the talk of an American multilateral effort to bring peace and justice to this war-ravaged land will have been mere words,” the letter states.

But when President Obama visits China a little over a week from now, his main focus will be on what the Administration calls “rebalancing” of China-U.S. trade. Jeffrey Bader, the Administration’s top National Security Council official on East Asia said in a speech this week at the Brookings Institution that China, as well as other Asian nations, had been “achieving prosperity based on the profligacy of the America consumer.” U.S.-China trade dropped 19.4% between the last quarter of 2008 and the first quarter of 2009 when compared to the same period a year earlier. In recent months, Chinese exports to the U.S. have picked up, but Bader cautions that the previous model of a wave of Chinese exports to America and limited U.S. exports to China was not sustainable.

According to U.S. Census Bureau trade figures, the trade balance between the United States and China exceeded US$143 billion in China’s favor near the end of the third quarter of this year. U.S. officials have complained that China is keeping its currency, the yuan, undervalued to gain trade advantages. Moreover, the U.S. and China may be about to engage in a trade war over export dumping practices. China is complaining loudly that the United States has unfairly imposed duties on Chinese-made steel pipes, which U.S. Department of Commerce officials say are being sold at artificially low prices to gain market share, a practice known as dumping. In response, China is now examining their import of U.S. automobiles for potential tariffs in retaliation. A U.S.-China trade war is seen as endangering a wide range of issues on which cooperation between the two nations is essential, such as the global economic crisis, North Korea and climate change. Sudan is not high on the priority list for the Administration’s engagement with China.

China invests more than US$10 billion in Sudan and buys as much as 70% of its oil. Consequently, those who have campaigned to end human rights abuses in Darfur have seen China as a potentially key player in pressuring the government in Khartoum to finally bring to an end abuses once called genocide in the three Darfur provinces of Sudan. China has been moving toward a position on Sudan more in concert with much of the world community. Still, it has been difficult to achieve significant movement in China’s traditional hands-off position on human rights in other countries.

First of all, China is more concerned about its economic advancement and fulfilling its commercial needs than it is in defending international human rights. Chinese officials have consistently said that it is not their policy to intervene in the internal affairs of other countries. Pressure on China through world opinion has slowly moved them to recognize the need to respond to human rights concerns in the countries with which they do business. The Leon H. Sullivan Foundation led a tripartite series of discussions with U.S., Chinese and African notables in 2007-08 to discuss corporate social responsibility in Africa, and the Chinese seem only now to begin to understand the need to make human rights and community involvement important concerns in their international commercial dealings.

The second constraint in dealing with China for the United States is that this Asian giant is America’s largest foreign creditor and second leading trading partner. Among China’s strongest defenders in the world are U.S. businesses eager to tap into China’s vast consumer market. This Administration is trying to be nuanced in its approach to China. President Obama’s refusal recently to meet with the Dalai Lama of Tibet was intended to not aggravate the increasingly tense situation between China and America at this point. Given the many global issues to be raised in Beijing next week, one hopes President Obama will bring up the need for China to join the international pressure on Khartoum – not only on Darfur but also on compliance with the Comprehensive Peace Agreement that ended the North-South civil war.

Nuance in diplomacy is a skill to be admired when it works, but nuance without results seems more self-serving. As the nation that has taken the lead in resolving Sudan’s various crises, America cannot afford to fail to be bold in seeking a lasting resolution to Darfur.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

What Does the U.S. Want from Africa?

Recently, I attended a State Department briefing at which an African reporter asked the official conducting the briefing what the United States wanted from the country in question. Essentially, the official answered that America wanted to ensure that the government of that African country better cared for its people by practicing good governance and transparency and provided an opportunity for its people to progress. The reporter’s expression looked like he was thinking: “Yeah, right.”

I didn’t think the State Department official was lying, and actually, I don’t believe the reporter thought so either. However, what we both knew, in fact what we all knew in that room, was that the answer was only a partial one. Surely, the United States has demonstrated a genuine concern for Africa’s people. Our long record of government spending to help Africans, however misplaced at times, and our citizens raising money and engaging in hands-on help for those in need on the continent proves our genuine concern. Still, the welfare of the African people is not our only interest in Africa.

Within this continent are 80% of the world’s strategic minerals, which we and the rest of the developed world need to maintain our economies and lifestyles. An estimated 97% of the world’s platinum is in Africa, especially South Africa and Zimbabwe. About 90% of the world’s cobalt is found in countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo and Zambia. Countries such as Burkina Faso and Cote d’Ivoire are where you find 64% of the world’s manganese. Gold mines across the continent in countries such as Ghana and Mali contain half the world’s gold reserves. A third of the world’s uranium comes from countries such as Guinea and Niger. Coltan, the African name given to columbite-tantalite, is mined worldwide, but is found in increasing amounts in African countries such as Ethiopia and Mozambique.

These minerals have enabled the development of computers, cell phones and other electronic devices, and we would be hard-pressed to operate advanced medical equipment to conduct CAT scans or MRIs or construct jet aircraft, automobile catalytic converters or iPods without the minerals found in Africa, and in some cases, almost nowhere else in the world.

This is not to mention the oil and natural gas that this country sources from Africa in increasing amounts. The overwhelming majority of U.S. trade with African nations still centers on American imports of African oil. U.S. oil purchases from Africa comprise nearly a quarter of American oil imports and promises to grow as new sources of oil continue to be found in West Africa and other parts of the continent, such as Uganda. West African crude oil is less costly to produce and refine than oil from other sources, such as the Middle East, and there are no strategic choke points to inhibit its transport – just open ocean between that oil and American refineries.

America has a significant economic interest in the stability of Africa so that these resources continue to flow. We have all seen the economic devastation that oil embargoes or sharp rises in the price of oil can have. Does anyone believe that our relations with nations such as Angola or Nigeria have nothing to do with our oil imports? Even when the diplomats don’t openly discuss such matters, they provide the subtext to all conversations about U.S. relations with the oil-producing nations of Africa.

Some may feel economic interests are our main focus in our interactions with Africa. At one point that was undoubtedly true, but what the State Department official said that day is also true. The many African Americans and African expatriates in America have provided a relatable face to their friends and neighbors about our interests on the continent. The images of starving children and drought-stricken villages often have touched the hearts of Americans. Through church missions, many Americans have shared their time, talent and reassure with Africans. So our concern for Africa has become quite genuine.

My point is that we have multi-level interests in the countries of Africa, and our economic interests are nothing to be ashamed of admitting. Unlike the colonial times, we are not robbing Africa of its resources today. African countries sell because they need the money they can earn from their resources, and we buy because we need those resources to make our 21st century economy possible. So long as this trade is conducted fairly and without coercion, there is a willing buyer and a willing seller. We shouldn’t be ashamed to admit that. When we hide this fact, it makes our humanitarian interests seem phony, and they certainly aren’t.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Behind-the-Scenes Debate on GM Foods

Despite all the discussion concerning what to do about genetically modified (GM) foods in Africa, it is a relatively quiet debate about whether scientifically altered seeds have a place in achieving the long-awaited Green Revolution on the continent. Some are working to use science to speed up agricultural advancements in Africa, while other see this as the beginning of Africa’s doom.

I recently came across the following headline: “Bill Gates launches attack on Africa’s food production.” The article’s author, Ayesha Fleary, accuses the Microsoft founder with setting up an African agriculture organization “under the pretext of ensuring that small farmers get the funding needed that will enable them to feed themselves and their communities.” She writes that GM and hybrid seeds degrade the soil and inhibit the growth of any other type of seed for at least 10 years, even though she acknowledges that “no independent scientific research has been conducted” on GM products. Fleary blames the degradation of African soil on centuries-long denutritionalizing of soil by production of the same crops for export to Western countries and the byproducts of industrial waste and calls for natural techniques such as rain harvesting and community farming.

On the other hand, African organizations such as the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) in Nairobi, Kenya, are working to enable African countries to take advantage of existing technology, especially biotechnology, to advance the green revolution. “If money was not a constraint, we could achieve a green revolution through not necessarily biotechnology, but if we could put irrigation systems in place, if we could afford to purchase fertilizer, pesticides, we should be able to reach a green revolution as what happened in Asia,” said Daniel Mutaruka, director of AATF in an interview with allAfrica.com. Mutaruka went on to point out that an African living in a resource-poor environment today consumes less than what he or she would have 10 years ago. He calls for African governments to create enabling environments to stimulate research on GM foods.

Millions of Africans face death from malnutrition as I write this. For a variety of reasons, too many African nations are no longer able to meet their agricultural needs. Despite skepticism among European countries, the United States, China, India and several South American countries are forging ahead on with testing of GM crops. Several African countries also are in the process of testing biotechnology in agriculture, and South Africa, Nigeria, Egypt and Burkina Faso already have commercialized some GM crops.

Clearly, there is a disconnect between advocates and scientists about the utility and safety of GM agricultural products that stems from a lack of understanding of what these products are and what their short-term and long-term effects may be. GM crops are produced by seeds altered for a variety of purposes: pest resistance, disease resistance, herbicide resistance, cold tolerance, drought tolerance, enhanced nutrition or added medicines and vaccines. It is simply not yet proven that GM foods are broadly hazardous to human health, although it is very likely that those with food allergies could be adversely affected by altered food products.

Those who don’t trust what they see as Big Science and capitalists believe GM agricultural products are “Frankenfood.” Those alarmed by the rise in both malnutrition and food prices a see a crisis that may be alleviated by using science to jump-start the Green Revolution in Africa. The problem is that there is not enough evidence that these products are either unjustifiably dangerous or completely safe. Africa’s brain drain doesn’t make this situation any easier since many of the scientists who could ensure that their homelands don’t use unsafe agricultural products or take advantage of existing technology to prevent starvation live and work in other countries.

So African governments are faced with heeding warnings by those who are suspicious of technology they acknowledge not understanding or accepting advice from those desperate to meet pressing needs despite potential risks in the future. The behind-the-scenes debate over GM foods needs to be brought into the open and examined carefully. Promoting products that may be dangerous is unacceptable. However, in the face of growing hunger in Africa, we owe it to the hungry to explore every possibility for meeting their needs while they still live.

Let the open debate begin!