There has been talk that high food prices are making the problems with drought in East Africa even worse. What is the situation?
Food prices are very high right now. You probably recall that we had a spike in food prices in 2008 that caused many problems, but then they went back down and the issue disappeared from most peoples’ minds. But they have been on the rise ever since and now are actually higher than in 2008. This really limits the way people can respond when drought strikes.
In parts of countries like Ethiopia and Kenya, you have people who spend a tremendous amount of their income, upwards of 80 percent, on food. In most developed countries, by contrast, people spend about 10 percent. So people in these poorer countries do not have a lot of margin when prices rise. In rural areas, when there are no crops to eat, people simply do not have enough money to substitute purchased food. And, with no crops to sell, they cannot take advantage of high prices to give them additional income.
Why are food prices so high?
There are a lot of reasons, but much of it is connected to the global financial crisis. For one, whenever oil prices rise, that rise also is seen in food prices due to increases in transport, fertilizer and other costs. For another, when financial markets are in turmoil, people take their money out of stocks and start putting it elsewhere. The one that gets most commented on is gold which is now at record prices. But some of the capital flowing out of stocks and looking for better returns goes into the commodity markets, and that includes food. All that money pushes the prices up. That was certainly the situation in 2008 and the failure to solve those financial problems has helped lead to the rise in prices since then.
How does this affect trying to address the East Africa drought?
One of the main ways is that the money that is donated does not go as far as it would if prices were lower. Most food that is used in aiding the drought victims is bought on the open market. So the more expensive it is, the less can be purchased.
But beyond that, high prices limit the options of those who find themselves in the drought. They can’t grow food. They try to buy food but they can’t buy enough. Hungry people will pay whatever they can so hunger really drives prices up. Many eat the grain that they have saved for seeds for the next planting. Then they eat less. They eat smaller meals, fewer meals. If they cannot get enough to eat, they move, looking for food. In doing this, they leave their fields so if the rains return, they are not there to plant for the next growing season. That extends the problem even when the drought is over.
Rising food prices compound the problems brought on by the drought, make them more difficult to solve both in the short term and the long term.
For more information about CRS’ work in the Horn of Africa, see our East Africa drought emergency page: http://crs.org/
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Catholic Relief Services is the official international humanitarian agency of the Catholic community in the United States. For more information, please visit http://www.crs.org or http://www.crsespanol.org.