Food for Thought

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Africa » Ethiopia
March 7th 2012
Published: March 7th 2012
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This all started a few months ago. I was in the Gambella region of western Ethiopia bouncing down a road to visit a Nuer village, one of the indigenous tribes of the area. For miles, all along the newly graded road, the forest was being enthusiastically dragged down, piled up, and burnt. Clear cutting toward a better future. Rounding a bend, a enormous piece of John Deere industrial farm equipment sat on the edge of the field. Its just-off-the-factory-line new green and yellow paint gleamed in the harsh sun bleached washed out colors of the countryside. We stared at awe. Although in Midwest America, it would be barely worth mentioning, such a thing in rural Ethiopia was like seeing ET and Bigfoot sipping tea next to a flying saucer. Since then, something has been festering in my head. This is an attempt to get it out.

World hunger is a bad thing, and the world has a moral and ethical obligation to do something about it. Prima facia, this isn’t a particularly controversial statement. That said, I have begun suspecting that it is an intentional gross oversimplification. It is a statement so obvious and so often accompanied by pictures of swollen bellies and sunken eyes that questioning it is taboo. But perhaps lurking behind the human suffering is a muddied twisted net of contingencies, self interest, manipulation, and deception. Or perhaps I am becoming much too cynical. I admit this is a possibility.

I don’t work for the Wood Food Program, UNICEF, USAID, OXFAM, or the kaleidoscopic array of governmental and NGOs in the BIG business of food security, developmental aid, or famine relief. Though these are the professionals who presumably understand the dynamics of fighting hunger, their solutions usually include ever increasing budgets, vital strategic meetings in expensive western cities, lucrative contracts, and ever more recruits for the high-paid professional aid army. Since I am not biting the hand that feeds me, I am free to wonder if perhaps the emperor is wearing no clothes.

Ethiopia is a good place to begin if you want to talk about starving people in Africa. For most, that is the only real conception they have of the country. The Ethiopia highlands drop precipitously toward Somalia to the east and the Sudan to the west. The highlands are economically, culturally, and politically dominant, while the west is largely forgotten, and the east appears with depressing frequency in world headlines proclaiming something along the lines of ‘Only YOU can Help Stop the Worst EVER Humanitarian Disaster of Biblical Proportions’. Every couple of years, an impassioned plea to save the children is urgently sent to governments, NGOs, the UN, and the guilt ridden well-off in the west to pony up. And pony up they do.

This year, things were no different. In November of 2010, USAID’s Famine Early Warning System Network predicted the looming crisis. Then nothing happened until February 2011 when the Ethiopian Minister of Agriculture announced that the number of Ethiopians at risk had dropped to an estimated 2.8 million. There had been no rain, but there were new estimates! By July, the drought had comfortably settled into its second year, and the government announced that an estimated 4.5 million people needed emergency food assistance.

The litany of causes for Ethiopia’s endemic food insecurity include primitive agricultural practices, dependence on rain, land degradation, erosion, faulty land use and management policies, corruption, conflict, land ownership laws, lack of infrastructure, market inaccessibility, and everyone’s current favorite, climate change. Buried beneath the avalanche of second-order causes is the fact that the population continues to grow exponentially. In 1974, the population of the Horn of Africa was 80 million. By 2000, it had doubled. It is projected to increase by a further 40% by 2015. Growing populations coupled with erratic weather patterns and increasing demand on already denuded and degraded land guarantees that the headlines won’t change much. It is Malthusian and politically incorrect to speak of, but it is also basic math. Keep your checkbooks handy, this will all be happening again soon .

As absurd as this is, it isn’t what was bothering me in Gambella. Ethiopia is the world's largest recipient of humanitarian food and development assistance. Last year, It received more than 700,000 tons of food and hundreds of millions in food aid (and plenty more not tied to food). However, while eastern Ethiopia fills the Save the Children headlines, there is something happening in the west that seems to me to be a crucial factor in the equation.

Out west, the Ethiopian government is long-term leasing at obscenely low prices some 7.4 million acres of virgin land to foreign FOOD corporations. Prior to 2009, a hectare cost as little as $1.25! Now, the price for foreigners is all the way up to $26-42. By comparison, in 2010, the average price per hectare for quality dryland in the US cornbelt states was $16,000. Not surprisingly, Indian and Gulf State (among many many others) companies are falling over each other to lease the land, which they plan to develop for large scale agricultural EXPORT. A representative from an Indian agri-business that got in on the land grab early was recently quoted in the Guardian as saying, "It's very good land. It's quite cheap. In fact, it is very cheap. We have no land like this in India. There you are lucky to get 1% of organic matter in the soil. Here it is more than 5%. We don't need fertilizer or herbicides. There is absolutely nothing that will not grow on it. . . We could feed a nation here.” Which is precisely what Ethiopia cannot do, but is leasing its land so that others can.

Leaving aside the rampant destruction of this ecosystem and the forced ‘villagization’ of the local populations getting in the way of ‘progress’ (an allegation made in a recent Human Rights Watch report and not surprisingly, denied by the government), how can the Ethiopian government be leasing land to foreigners to grow food for export? The government line is that this will generate much needed foreign reserves and through the transfer of technological knowhow to small farmers lead to long-term food security. Undoubtedly this will provide foreign reserves for the government, but the technological transfer rationale seems a stretch. Barring divine intervention, no small Ethiopian farmer in the near or distant future is going to be in the market for heavy John Deere machinery. Nevertheless, implicit is the assumption that until then, the international community will keep sending/buying food for the increasing number of famine victims out west. Has the aid community been eating lead paint chips? Why aren’t all these hundreds of millions of dollars in aid being directed toward developing the Ethiopians’ ability to farm their own land? Wouldn’t investment in self-sufficiency free Ethiopia from the shackles of endemic famine? Isn’t the underlying purpose of all international aid programs to eventually make themselves obsolete? And here is where the cynicism creeps in. Why would anyone possibly want this?

Most of the food insecurity issues arise in the Somali and Afar regions. The regions of the country populated by poor non-highlander Muslims who don’t always think very highly of the central government. Ethiopian governance is already severely ethnically biased and lowlanders are the bottom of the barrel. By turning over the land to foreigner and highlander farmers, who have no incentive to ensure local population food needs are met (but do have incentives to export the food), they undermine local communities self-sufficiency and increase their dependance on the government.

In addition to possible Machiavellian motives, there is also the economics. Although the international aid community can be counted on to rush in every time there is another drought or famine, it has recently gotten the crazy idea to make aid contingent on governmental development of long-term sustainable agriculture solutions. Such conditions are bothersome. Revenue from leased land, on the other hand, comes with no strings. While the international aid community picks up most of the tab for problems out east, the Ethiopian government, for the price of a few dead babies, gets to eat its cake and have it too.

It is not only the Ethiopian government, however, milking the system. Contrary to common belief, famines are rarely about a lack of food. Rather, it is an inability to get the food where it is needed when it is needed, and unfortunately, the aid community rarely mobilizes before it sees bloated stomachs and protruding ribs. But aid is big business. It generously fills the pockets of the international aid army, while at the same time, subsidizes donor countries’ agricultural sectors. In the US, for example, aid is ‘tied’, which means that Congress mandates that food commodities must be grown by American farmers and shipped on American boats. According to the Government Accountability Office, at least half of the value of food aid is lost before it arrives where it is needed. Additionally, instead of buying cheaper locally available food, tied aid ensures that by the time it arrives, it is usually already too late. Finally, when this food bonanza does arrive, it immediately saturates the market and drives down the market price of any locally grown food, further impoverishing local farmers. And then a couple of years later, the cycle repeats. In other words, famine subsidizes the US agricultural/shipping economy. In this elaborate equation, there are a lot of winners, but it isn’t the dead.

In conclusion, I am writing this to try and discover what I am missing. Why does the international aid community flood Ethiopia with food and money while ignoring the fact that the country is selling off the land that could apparently solve its problems? Is the aid business so integral to sustaining donor countries’ agricultural economies that they willingly turn a blind eye to this scam? Is it a business calculation by donor countries that the Ethiopian government’s focus on increasing foreign income reserves at the expense of creating food self-sufficiency will create a future market for agricultural imports? Is this the tradeoff that the US, in particular, makes to pursue its foreign policy, notably the War of Terror? Undoubtedly, the warp and weft are so tightly bound that there are aspects unseen and unfathomable, but perhaps someone else understands the logic of the illogical. From here though, it sure does look like lives are just part of the cost of governance and international business.


7th March 2012

this feels too big to deal with
Hey. Just finished the whole blog. You're so smart Colin. I do believe that talking about the problem does help bring about awareness and therefore you are part of the solution. You are grassroots- I want your blog to inspire someone to action- not just greater awareness. And that person is not me- and so I feel guilt. Guilt being the awareness of what I do or don't do matters. Maybe I will ease the guilt with my new understanding and explain it all to Marco. There. Done. xo
8th March 2012

Really insightful
Can you see any possible positive outcomes of this purchase of cheap land? I mean, the country does need foreign exchange. The government Must be aware of not over-exploiting the land or people? In other words, it couldn't only be a heartless, cold-calculated economic decision. No? I ask because it's hard for me to absorb/believe that decisions could be so short-sighted. The country is need of some economic leverage. My eduction (in the U.S.), btw, is Sustainable Development for sub-Saharan Africa. Not economics.
8th March 2012

seeds of revolution
when it comes... and it will come, when Meles dies, when something changes, when shit hits the fan, then the Indians, Saudis and all their sharecroppers might be well out of a job anyway. I mean, maybe buying 2 dollar hectares was the only way they'd buy into this disastrous country. Injera for though. Good piece Mullins.
8th March 2012

Silence is the cause
I just feel like Lisa, and I wish to see what else happens in other parts of Ethiopia, too. But I just don't know what to say or do. Because this abuse/manipulation has begun since the start of the birtth of this country, now I know. And I so much regret that people who abuse this land have got nothing of theirs. So why does Meles do this to us? or is it "I didn't do it for you" shit?
13th March 2012

See Nik, the cynic
That is so frustrating! I know international aid can seem like trying to throw sand back into the ocean, one grain at a time. In my experience, there is one good practice that helps make a dent: sustainability. You mentioned it a few times, but it is really the responsibility and Duty of these international developers (whether they are for food programs or for agricultural development) to ensure that their projects are going to be able to support themselves in the future. Similar things happened in Kenya when I was there; a chief would grab the grain sacks sent in for relief, and sell them to his village. Sometimes these aid agencies do more harm than good. I've seen a hundred missionaries who meant well, but just perpetuated a helpless and dependent culture, rather than empowering and teaching. There has to be a delicate balance of resources, guidance, and monitoring and evaluation. And I do have to say that although it may be hard to see, there are peace corps volunteers working with agricultural programs in Ethiopia, it just takes a long time to change behavior. Great blog though, hope you're having some fun! Drink some Tej for us!
2nd November 2012

Food for Thought
Thank you for this info. Great blog. The issues around food aid. When I was in Ethiopia in 2011 I heard of optimism that no further famines would cripple the country due to better farming practices and storing surplus for tougher times. The economy was booming. Road works everywhere...improving infrastructure. To lease out good land cheaply for overseas interests...doesn't make sense to me either.

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