Helen Clark: Remarks at the launch of the UNDP Africa Human Development Report 2012

May 15, 2012

Speech by Helen Clark, Administrator of UNDP on the occasion of the launch of the UNDP Africa Human Development Report 2012
“Towards a Food Secure Future
Nairobi, Kenya, 11.00 AM, 15 May 2012

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It is a pleasure to be in Nairobi to launch UNDP’s Africa Human Development Report, “Towards a Food Secure Future”. It is the first of what I hope will be many Human Development Reports focusing specifically on Africa.

This report advocates people-centered and comprehensive approaches to food security, and is both timely and important. The G8 will discuss food security at its meeting in the United States next week. An action-oriented outcome of the Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Brazil next month would also help the world make great strides in reducing hunger and malnutrition. Whether it will or not currently lies in the balance; hence I have a message for the leaders of the world’s nations later in my speech today.

The prospect of food security for Africa’s peoples, rural and urban dwellers alike, is threatened by increasingly extreme weather, ecosystem degradation, and volatile global food prices. Levels of food insecurity and malnutrition are already high in many parts of the continent. The impressive economic growth which much of the continent has been recording must now be accompanied by decisive action to improve food security and nutrition. Growth divorced from advances in human development does little for people; and without advances in human development, countries cannot meet their full potential either.

Human Development and Food Security

The first global Human Development Report launched by UNDP in 1990 defined human development as being about enlarging people’s freedoms, choices, and capabilities.  When human development advances, people live longer and healthier lives, are better educated, have more income, and can live in greater dignity. 

The Report being released today reminds us that food security is basic to human development, and that food insecurity can trap generations of people in underdevelopment.

Malnutrition and hunger contribute to poor health, reduced worker productivity, and less ability to learn. The effects on the physical development and cognitive skills of children are long-lasting.

Low human development, including a lack of education, poor health, and limited access to information and resources, threatens the food security of individual households and communities.    

But the converse is also true. By improving food security and nutrition, countries can accelerate progress on the Millennium Development Goals, advance sustainable human development, and build resilience to the climatic and other disasters which affect food security in the region.

Understanding Food Security Crises in Africa

Last year, countries in the Horn of Africa experienced their worst food security crisis in more than twenty years. Somalia suffered the first famine of the 21st century. In the Sahel, just two years after the last severe food security and nutrition crisis, a combination of drought, poverty, high grain prices, environmental degradation, and, in some countries, instability and conflict is requiring another large scale crisis response.

Latest estimates suggest that more than fifteen million people across Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, and Senegal are directly affected, with the crisis yet to peak.

In February, Valerie Amos, the UN’s Emergency and Humanitarian Co-ordinator, and I visited Niger to see conditions for ourselves, and to raise international awareness of the urgent need for support. We stressed the importance of integrated humanitarian and development responses which both brought relief and helped build greater resilience for the future.

Back in 1981, Amartya Sen, Nobel-prize winning economist and an architect of the human development paradigm, challenged the notion that famine is caused simply by a decline in the food supply. He argued that famine is a consequence of poorly functioning institutions, the lack of rule of law, and limited access to markets or affordable food. He also noted that where governments are responsive and inclusive, famines are unknown.

The Human Development Report we are launching today argues that while drought and crop failure often trigger food crises in Africa, the actual causes of food insecurity go much deeper. They include:

  • Low agricultural productivity, which curtails the availability of food, leading to trade imbalances and a reliance on imports and humanitarian aid;
  • Persistent, wide-spread, and extreme poverty which makes getting enough food unaffordable and markets inaccessible for poor people. Almost half the population in sub-Saharan Africa continues to live on under US$ 1.25 per day;  and
  • Little policy focus on the importance of nutrition, which enables wide-spread and chronic malnutrition to persist.

The impact on food systems of erratic weather patterns, environmental degradation, food price volatility, and conflict further aggravates these contributing factors to food insecurity.

As well, in delving deeper into its underlying causes, the Report finds that there has been a longer term urban bias in policy, leading to the relative neglect of rural areas and of the needs of subsistence farmers and the landless poor. That has held back the level of investment required in infrastructure, technology, and agricultural inputs - which was so essential to the success of the “Green Revolutions” in Asia and Latin America.

This report also identifies bias against women as a critical factor in maintaining food insecurity, both because it limits the ability of women to provide food security for themselves and their families, and because it limits the success of measures which were intended to build food security.

While the picture of food insecurity painted by the Report is complex, it does argue that Africa can build a food secure future.

Sub-Saharan Africa has ample agricultural land and water, and a generally favourable climate for growing food. In the past decade, many of its countries have recorded high economic growth rates, and the region is expected to continue to grow at more than five per cent this year.  Since 2000, nine of the ten countries making the largest gains in human development have been in sub-Saharan Africa.

Building a Food-Secure Future: how to proceed

  • Boosting agricultural productivity

The Report highlights the need for effective policy in four key areas: The first lies in measures to boost the agricultural productivity of smallholder farmers. The Report notes that most of the increases in sub-Saharan Africa’s agricultural output over the last fifty years came from expanding the area in cultivation, rather than from higher yields.

Worldwide, 1.5 billion people are involved in smallholder agriculture – many of whom are in Africa. Global demand for food is projected to rise by seventy per cent by 2050.

Tapping the potential of smallholder farmers to increase production through raised productivity and to access new and growing markets can help expand food security, while also improving the livelihoods and well-being of the farmers and their families.  

To achieve this, small farmers will need better access to agricultural inputs, such as appropriate seeds and fertilizers, extension services, new technologies and innovation, along with better access to markets and credit.

Basic water infrastructure which enables food to be grown and animals to be sustained even in severe drought conditions is also critical. Valerie Amos and I witnessed the stark difference in Niger between the resilience of the community we visited which had water infrastructure to extreme drought conditions and of the community we visited which lacked it.

  • Prioritizing nutrition

Calorie sufficiency is not enough – the quality of the food we eat matters for our development. Nutrition is often a neglected area of public policy – improving it needs to take centre stage.  

Achieving better nutrition requires much more than advocacy about what people should eat. The education of girls is widely regarded as one of the most important factors in improving nutrition for the next generation. As well, nutrition outreach and education initiatives need to reach remote areas, and may benefit from being linked to other services people are using.

  • Building resilience for people and their communities

The Report argues that explicit efforts to build resilience are needed to break cycles of vulnerability and avoid irreversible setbacks to development from adverse events. Policies to build food security should address the sources of the problem, including environmental degradation and climate change, while also expanding the opportunities and social protection available to the poor.

Adequate social protection systems are affordable, and they are essential for building resilience. The International Labour Organisation estimates the costs of an adequate social protection floor lie between one and two per cent of GDP.

Ghana, for example, provides a small cash grant to poor households through its Livelihood Empowerment against Poverty programme. Ethiopia provides cash and food in return for work on environmental conservation, water source protection, and terracing, through its Productive Safety Net Programme. One study of participants in the programme found that they were “more likely to be food secure, borrow for productive purposes, use agricultural technologies, and operate their own non-farm business.”

Here in Kenya,insurance has been made more accessible through innovative uses of mobile phone technology, and is helping smallholder farmers protect themselves against the risk of drought or excessive rain. This is one of many areas of considerable innovation in information and communications technologies to be found in Kenya today, with broad applications for human development.

Building resilience is also about repairing degraded environments. That can be as basic as replanting trees as windbreaks to protect crops, retain moisture in soils, and draw nutrients to topsoil.

The Government of Niger, in partnership with the development community, has supported locally managed reforestation initiatives. To date, these have reforested four per cent of the country’s land area. This area was able to increase its cereal yields by 100 kilograms per hectare in 2009, improving livelihoods and food security for some 2.5 million people.

  • Empowering women and other marginalized groups

Where women have more education, control over resources, and a voice in decision-making, the availability, access, and nutritional level of food consumed is likely to improve.

Women make up almost half the agricultural labour force in developing countries. Yet they have less control over land and poorer access to agricultural inputs and finance than men have.  As a result, yields from women farmers can be lower than those of men by a quarter, and in some countries by even more. 

Evidence suggests that in situations where women receive equal inputs, that gap will close completely. This makes women’s empowerment critical for lifting small-holder productivity in Africa. Full legal rights for women to own, rent, and inherit property are critical.

At the weekend, I was delighted to visit Maasai women who have banded together, supported by a local NGO, to farm leased land which has had a small water bore and irrigation system installed. Previously their economic positions as heads of their households were precarious. Now their farming has not only boosted their incomes, but also produces surpluses for local markets. There are many such initiatives in Africa, and there could be many more.

UNDP works in a number of countries on strengthening women’s legal rights, including by supporting community land titling initiatives with special measures to protect the land interests of vulnerable populations and women. 

Taking the recommendations forward

Lifting productivity, improving nutrition, building resilience, and empowering women requires co-ordinated action across disciplines and sectors. Governments – central and local, civil society, development partners, and the private sector need to work together. Humanitarian and development actors too must pool their efforts so that they reinforce each other and go beyond relief to build long term resilience.

Although not an agriculture- or food-specific agency, UNDP supports governments to establish cross-cutting partnerships and integrated policy approaches for tackling complex issues.  One way we have been doing this around food security is through the MDG Acceleration Framework. It helps countries identify bottlenecks to MDG progress, and to prioritize the policies, reforms, and actions needed to overcome them. It is a problem-solving approach which brings stakeholders together across sectors. It draws from existing plans and evidence, and it generates new types of partnerships. 

In Togo, for example, the focus was on removing the blockages in the way of small farmers – in particular women –  growing more and better food.  Using the methodology offered by the MDG Acceleration Framework, Togo prioritized concrete actions – including increasing farmers’ ability to purchase fertilizers and seeds, and better equip agricultural extension officers to target women farmers.

In Niger, a comprehensive action plan to achieve the MDG One targets for reducing hunger and poor nutrition is being implemented, encompassing diverse measures from issuing land titles to improving access to agricultural advisory services.


UNDP’s Human Development Reports aim to stimulate debate and action on critical human development issues. No issue is more fundamental to human well-being than food security – yet the right to food is elusive for many in Africa today.

High-level political commitment and co-ordinated public policy and initiatives will play a critical role in overcoming food insecurity. That is important at both the national and global levels.

As I noted at the beginning of my speech, the Rio+20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development takes place in Brazil next month.

The world is in much worse shape in many ways than it was at the time of the Earth Summit in Rio twenty years ago. Inequality is rising in many countries, and planetary boundaries are under great pressure. Future food security is heavily related to how effectively we tackle these issues.

Yet barely weeks away from Rio+20, the negotiations on its outcome are making very slow progress. This is the time for everyone who cares about human development and the state of our planet to speak up and demand of world leaders that they act to ensure the future sustainability of life on our planet.

In the worst case scenario presented in last year’s global Human Development Report, the toxic combination of rising inequality exacerbated by growing damage to ecosystems would slow human development progress to a crawl, and even see it regress in vulnerable countries. That would dash the hopes and aspirations of many people on this continent and elsewhere who have so much to gain from rising living standards and more opportunities. It is also a recipe for a fractious and troubled world.

The message needs to go to the negotiators of Rio’s outcome document that they must rise above their differences, and unite around a shared vision for our common future. Our world’s peoples and ecosystems deserve no less. Carrying on as we are dooms us: changing course secures our common future. How could we justify to future generations a failure to act at Rio to secure their future ?

In achieving greater food security and nutrition for all, and in ensuring that Rio+20 succeeds, the leadership of Africa is critical. So too is the leadership and support of development partners. We all need to lift our level of ambition to eradicate hunger and malnutrition, and to keep human development moving forward within the boundaries of nature.

The challenges are formidable and the investments required are huge. But the opportunities are great too. Countries on this continent which have prioritized the reduction of poverty and hunger have results to share which can inspire others to act.

If we take a comprehensive approach to food security and address its underlying causes, we can bring an end to chronic hunger and malnutrition in Sub-Saharan Africa once and for all. This first Africa Human Development Report challenges us to do just that. I hope that not only will it be widely read, but also that its recommendations will be acted on.

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