By Nick Long originally posted in Voice of America
A recent study suggests that at least half of the people in the Democratic Republic of Congo are malnourished, and that sending food aid is not the best way to help.
The study’s main author, John Ulimwengu, looked at data from more than 13,000 households across Congo and found that in nearly every province, many families are not getting enough essential nutrients like vitamins E and B12, iron, zinc and folate, making them more vulnerable to disease.
Because the problem is so widespread, he says, food aid is not the right answer.
Instead, he thinks Congo’s farmers should be helped to grow more rice and maize, which would supply the missing nutrients, and for which the country has plenty of suitable land and water.
“It doesn’t make sense for anyone, including the World Food Program, to distribute food to cover even half the nutrient deficiency across the country. I mean, this is a country with 60 or so million population, the size of western Europe. It makes more sense to help local farmer,” said Ulimwengu. a Congolese economist who works for the International Food Policy Research Institute.
The report says more food aid could even make the situation in Congo worse, as it deprives farmers from being able to grow a sustainable amount of crops to feed the country.
“Pouring a lot of food aid into the country had a bad effect of limiting, and competing against local food production. I do think that as of now the balance is too much towards food aid,” Ulimwengu said.
Last year, the World Food Program spent $323 million on its main project in Congo, delivering food to some four and a half million people. The amount the donors spent on aid to farming came to much less.
The World Food Program’s spokesperson in Congo, Fabienne Pompey, said Ulimwengu’s report is partly right, but many people in eastern Congo cannot farm.
“We have a situation in the east of the country where 1.6 million people are displaced by conflict. So we cannot expect them to produce food – I mean, they have got no land available. But where the report is totally right is the situation in the west of the country, where you have provinces that could feed almost the population, but we still have pockets of very, very severe malnutrition and a lot of deficiency in vitamins, and everything,” Pompay said.
Pompey said the World Food Program tries to buy food locally, and has a $15 million project over four years to help Congolese farmers in two provinces to grow maize. But, she said the program needs to focus on price and quality, when buying food.
Analysts agree that Congo’s farmers need help to become competitive. They need better roads, or river transport, to get their produce to markets. They also need improved seeds, fertilizer and farming advice.
All this will require private sector investment, according to Ulimwengu. He says he is disappointed with the Congo’s new agricultural law, because it will not help to attract funds. The new law requires all new investments in Congo’s farmland to be majority owned by Congolese.
“That’s problematic, first because you don’t have a very strong private sector involved in agriculture. Two, no one will feel safe to invest in agriculture while having only 50 percent of power, so to speak, so at the end we think this law will reduce the amount of private investment in agriculture, especially coming from foreigners,” Ulimwengu said.
Ulimwengu admits that agricultural projects have often failed in Congo. He says this was often because the decisions were taken by government and donors, and local communities had little say.