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November 11th, 2008

Zahira Kharsany, Pretoria – The global food crisis and subsidy reform came under the spotlight at a regional forum co-hosted by the Inter Press Service (IPS) Africa, the Global Subsidies Initiative (GSI) and the South African Institute for International Affairs (SAIIA) in South Africa recently.

The two-day forum – “From Basket Case to Bread Basket: How subsidy reform can help Southern Africa surmount the food crisis” – brought together senior journalists from across southern Africa to discuss the issue of food security and the way public money is used within their own countries.

The forum is part of a series of regional forums organised by IPS and GSI which aims to equip journalists with an understanding of how government subsidies function and their impact. Javed Ahmed, head of communications, said journalists as well as civil society organisations had a role in ensuring that subsidies were not misspent in the region.

Food security in Southern Africa has reached a crisis point due to the soaring food prices.

The forum sought to examine what role subsidies could play in dealing with the crisis.

“It’s been proven across the world that subsidies underpin the development of domestic economies especially in the agriculture sector,” said Ahmed.

“More often then not though, subsidies in agriculture are often badly targeted, open to abuse and are handed out for political reasons with no accountability and transparency.”

Speakers at the forum included Peter Draper, Senior Fellow and head of Development through Trade at SAIIA, who set the scene by introducing the dynamics that underlay food security in the region.

“To understand subsidies is to better understand the obstacles that limit Africa’s success in international trade. Closer to home, it’s to understand exactly how African governments — and the many international institutions that offer endless advice — are succeeding or failing to improve the livelihoods on the continent,” said IPS Regional Editor Terna Gyuse.

Dr Lindiwe Majele Sibanda, CEO of Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network (FANRPAN), outlined the successes and failures of African food subsidy policies in the agricultural sector. She described the positive initiative of the Malawian government, but mentioned how journalists did not always see the story.

Sibanda said Malawi responded to food insecurity, against advice of various international luminaries, by spending on agricultural subsidies, turning near-famine into bumper harvests within three years.

Other speakers included Mona Frystad, a researcher for the Namibian Economic Policy Resaerch Unit (NEPRU) and Trade Knowledge Network (TKN), and Hilton Zunckel, director of Trade Law Chambers who outlined the concepts and legalities surrounding subsidies and their relationship with the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

The forum discussions were well received: “Journalists at the GSI workshops have been equipped to ask critical and intelligent questions about how effectively limited resources are being spent,” said Gyuse.

More about: Africa, Dissemination and networking, Globalization and the South, Sustainable development

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