The severe food shortages currently affecting parts of the Horn of Africa have become such a recurrent theme that there is a real danger of taking them for granted, of shrugging one's shoulders and saying 'that's Africa for you'. As international aid agencies scramble around to get emergency rations for the ever-increasing numbers of the starving gathering in what has become the biggest refugee camp in northern Kenya and elsewhere, the image of Africa as a continent of desperate hunger once again dominates perceptions of the continent.
Africa, as we have reported in this magazine month on month, has been making tremendous strides in several key areas of economics - and governance - but the continent's oldest enemy, empty bellies, continues to mock all our achievements.
Unless Africa can conquer hunger, it will have conquered nothing at all. The first and most important condition for a life worth living is freedom from hunger. This is the foundation, the only foundation, on which all other social structures can be constructed. Otherwise the little pockets of achievement here and there will be swallowed up as surely as rocks thrown on quicksand.
No society has ever progressed unless it has been able to solve the problem of feeding itself. There is a direct correlation between food production and the growth of civilisation. The strength of societies, like the strength of individuals, is directly proportional to the volume and nutritional quality of the food they consume. All great societies, from the early Egyptian and Mesopotamian civilisations to the modern Western one, were built on a foundation of not only food sufficiency but food surpluses.
Food was the first form of wealth and the principal factor of exchange. It was the first form of capital. Only societies that produced food surpluses were able to diversify into other activities and specialise in other occupations such as various crafts. Armies, as the saying goes, march on their stomachs and it was those societies that were able to deploy vast amounts of surplus food to other activities that grew into great empires. The Roman empire for example, lived on the produce from its conquered 'provinces* which included vast areas of North Africa. Roman emperors, however, were careful to leave just sufficient food for their conquered populations to extract labour from them but not enough "to make them too strong to govern". When the provinces rebelled and the flow of grain to Rome was...