Program Examines Economic Policy and Poverty in Africa

By Mackin, Jeanne | Human Ecology Forum, Spring 1998 | Go to article overview

Program Examines Economic Policy and Poverty in Africa


Mackin, Jeanne, Human Ecology Forum


Since the late 1970s, African economies have performed poorly. Growth has been slow or nonexistent, poverty remains widespread, and living standards have stagnated. This discouraging economic performance contributed to internal and external pressures to reform economic policy and institutions in Africa.

Such reform programs, sponsored in general by international financial institutions, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund, focused on reducing state intervention in the economy and increasing the role of market forces. They have been criticized for two basic deficiencies.

First, some have argued that they have failed to contribute to accelerated and sustainable growth in African economies. Second, and more compelling, has been the criticism that these so-called structural adjustment programs are too oriented toward achieving short-term macroeconomic stability and have only worsened the plight of the poor.

Not necessarily so, says David E. Sahn, director of the Cornell Food and Nutrition Policy Program (CFNPP). In a recent book, Structural Adjustment Reconsidered: Economic Policy and Poverty in Africa (Cambridge University Press, United Kingdom, 1997), Sahn and co-authors Paul Dorosh and Stephen Younger, also of the Cornell Food and Nutrition Policy Program, argue that most of the poor stand to benefit from reforms that encourage economic liberalization. In particular, the book focuses on the effect on income distribution and poverty of three broad areas of reform: trade and exchange rate, fiscal reform, and agricultural and food marketing policy.

"A widespread perception exists among nongovernmental organizations, individuals, and institutions whose major concern is with the well-being of the poor that adjustment policies in these areas have worsened income distribution and poverty," Sahn says.

The authors counter that reform does help the poor, and economic liberalization that increases reliance on markets and encourages economic openness and competitiveness should continue to be implemented.

While Sahn admits the book probably won't be the last word in this heated and on-going debate, he hopes policy makers will move rapidly to adopt the types of economic reforms discussed in the book. Such action should be complemented by further political liberalization, investment in physical infrastructure and human resources, and a focus on strengthening critical state and civil institutions.

Sahn came to Cornell in 1987, one year before the Cornell Food and Nutrition Policy Program (CFNPP) was created in the Division of Nutritional Sciences. The program is designed specifically to assist policy makers and researchers who hope to accelerate economic growth and alleviate poverty and malnutrition in developing countries as well as in the transition economies of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. While CFNPP's activities are largely centered on research and advising policy makers, staff members of the program also regularly organize and participate in training seminars and workshops for African researchers and government officials.

CFNPP has actively collaborated with numerous governments, international organizations, and universities. Recent collaborating institutions have included the African Economic Research Consortium and University of Nairobi in Kenya, the Ministry of Labor and Social Protection in Romania, the Kiev International Institute of Sociology in Ukraine, the Ministry of Plan in Mozambique, the University of Malawi, the Economic Research Bureau and University of Dar Es Salaan in Tanzania, the University of Legon in Ghana, and the Institut Malagasy des Techniques de Planification in Madagascar. Funded largely by external donors such as the Africa Bureau of the Agency for International Development, the World Bank, and foreign governments, the program also receives support from the College of Human Ecology and the Division of Nutritional Sciences. …

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