Supporting food security in Sub-Saharan Africa amid the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change
By Antoinette Sayeh
Deputy Managing Director, International Monetary Fund (IMF).
Sub-Saharan Africa has made substantial economic and social progress over the past two decades. Yet, the region is facing difficult challenges, including vulnerability to climate change. Indeed, we have seen a marked increase in the frequency and intensity of natural disasters, which are driving the desertification of the Sahel, for example, and threatening growth, employment opportunities and food security. Climate change can also act as a multiplier for conflict and fragility in the region.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also disrupted production, imports and supply chains of food, resulting in volatile and rising food prices. And that, along with falling incomes from the pandemic, has led to an increase in the number of undernourished in the region by 20 percent in one year to reach 264 million in 2020.
It is also deeply worrisome that the global recovery that is now taking hold is driven by only a few countries that have had greater access to vaccines and resources, leaving others, especially low-income countries, at greater risk of falling behind. In this context, safeguarding food security is clearly a daunting challenge for sub-Saharan Africa.
So, I’ll now share with you what we at the IMF see as the top policy priorities for the region.
First, and foremost, we need urgent global action to close the gap in access to vaccines. Close to 40 percent of the population in advanced economies is fully vaccinated against COVID-19. In sub-Saharan Africa, that number is about 2.5 percent. Until we address this growing divide, COVID‑19 will continue to claim more lives.
Another priority for Sub-Saharan Africa’s policymakers is to advance economic and structural reforms, including in the agriculture sector – the main driver of growth and jobs in the region. But it is important to do so in a way that enhances resilience to climate change.
More specifically to safeguard food security, this means first, increasing the efficiency of public expenditure by better targeting and gradually phasing out agricultural subsidies. Indeed, these subsidies come at a high fiscal cost. Across 10 sub-Saharan African countries, we have data on, the cost ranging from 9 percent to 45 percent of public agricultural spending (or some 1.5 percent of GDP on average) in 2014. Country experiences from the region, however, suggest that the contribution of agricultural subsidies to improving food security and reducing poverty has only been weak.
Policymakers should channel the savings resulting from subsidy reforms toward strengthening social protection through cash transfers. The additional resources could also be invested in climate-resilient infrastructures, such as irrigation systems and storage facilities that would help weather recurring droughts and floods. Reforms to safeguard food security must also include facilitating fair competition, trade integration, and enabling digitalization – all of which will be critical to attracting much needed private sector investment.
At the same time, the pandemic is imposing lasting scars in the region. Limiting these requires investments in health, education, and key infrastructure. And sub-Saharan Africa needs additional resources to make these critical investments and foster progress towards achieving Sustainable Development Goals, including in the area of food security. Both policymakers and the international community have a key role to play.
Policymakers in the region can take action to generate additional resources through domestic revenue mobilization reforms and by strengthening public financial management. Broader reforms toward a business environment more conducive to investment are also key to attracting private finance.
The international community also needs to play its part. At the IMF, we have scaled up financing to support the region. In fact, in response to COVID-19, we provided in one year 13 times our average annual lending to sub-Saharan Africa. This allowed member countries the breathing space they needed to contain the pandemic, mitigate its economic impact and meet urgent medical and food needs.
In August, the IMF also made the largest SDR allocation in its history, which included about US$23 billion for sub-Saharan Africa. This allocation is supplementing countries’ foreign reserves, reducing their reliance on more expensive domestic or external debt, and helping step up their fight against the crisis. To magnify its impact even further, the IMF is encouraging voluntary channelling of some of the SDRs from countries with strong external positions to those most in need.
But clearly more needs to be done to enable greater food security in the region. And we have a panel of experts who we would love to hear from.