It really has been a riveting and often chilling couple of months in the international policy arena. Front and center across the airwaves, the African continent has been pummeled, probed, abused and disabused. From Boko Haram in the Nigerian North East to tribal conflicts in South Sudan, to private jets stashed with enough cash to purchase enough munitions to eradicate the so-called ISO or ISIS (…or is it ISI….?) a few times over smuggled into South Africa, the Continent, for all intents and purposes, seems to be getting along infamously.
While our emotional muscles have been trained, and dare I say appropriately so, to direct the worst of our ire towards our desperately inept and corrupt leadership, especially when they are caught right smack in the center of a rather dodgy, secret South African arms deal, it is a little more difficult to point fingers at anyone each time a new case of Ebola results in the rapid and untimely death of the next child, or mother or brother. In fact, the rise of this particular variety of misfortune is an event which unfortunately, cannot be traced to the tangible and callous fall of any human hand, and I for one find this doubly unfortunate, because such ills unlike most other outcomes of human vice, cannot be undone by a well calculated, equal and opposite action.
You may be asking at this point how all of this relates to agriculture; well, the World Bank in a recent report outlined the short and medium-term economic impacts of the West African Ebola epidemic, and she (that’s right…she) estimates that this public health crisis could potentially cost the 3 most affected countries; Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, upwards of $809 million by 2015 if its current momentum is not controlled or delayed.
GDP growth in Guinea has declined by an estimated 50% from 4.5% to 2.4%, a decline which can largely be attributed to drastic reductions in agricultural GDP value added. Agricultural production has ground to a halt as farm workers flee the countryside in search of an escape from the plague ravaging their families and communities, and exports of key cash crops like cocoa and palm oil have fallen to unprecedented lows.
Farming activity in Liberia’s Salayea district and Lofa county has dropped in tandem with the bodies of able bodies men and women who have succumbed to Ebola, and NGO’s relied upon by community farming cooperatives for technical and financial assistance have either shut their doors and fled, or severely restricted all activities. The rainy season stretching from May through July is prime planting season in a region whose agricultural sector follows a strict farming schedule. Reports from town community officials in the town of Beyan describe vast stretches of farm land which have not been brushed and prepped much less planted. Large public gatherings have been rightly forbidden by the government in the wake of the outbreak, and many farmers who hire the services of large numbers of youth for land preparation and planting can no longer do so. Families and individuals have fled in droves, but mostly to communities where they lack entitlement to farmland. Life has changed for farming households in the Ebola affected regions of Liberia, and the food security and productivity implications are enormous.
FAO reports this month have already begun to register disrupted food trade from all 3 countries resulting in price hikes and food shortages. Restricted movement, while necessary has led to panic purchasing of food especially in urban areas. With the harvest season for two key staple crops; maize and rice, fast approaching, labor shortages are not showing any signs of abating, and cash crop production is also expected to register substantial decline which has serious implications for household purchasing power and welfare.
I say all this to emphasize the truth that the Ebola epidemic is not just a public health crisis, which is a crippling thing in and of itself. It is triggering an even more alarming economic and food security crisis, the effects of which will be felt long after the last Ebola patient is cleared or buried, and international response to the crisis should be structured in a manner that takes the entirety of the situation into consideration.
The UN World Food Program (WFP) by way of a short-term food relief effort, has launched a regional emergency operation targeting approximately 65,000 tonnes of food to 1.3 million people, and is conducting “rapid assessments to identify the type of measures that are feasible to mitigate the impact of labor shortages during the harvesting period and for related post-harvest activities.” The FAO has also joined the coordinated UN effort to support affected countries, in daily communication with WHO and other key actors, and has personnel in West Africa aiding technical and logistical efforts.
Such coordinated and timely international response is crucial, and a systemic approach to combating the effects of Ebola from all possible angles of influence is absolutely essential if the region is to emerge from this crisis sufficiently equipped to effectively begin the process of rebuilding its lost capacity.
Next time, let’s talk climate change 🙂