Tag Archive | agriculture

Do politicians cause famines?

So many great, honest quotes from John Githongo, who works on good governance in Kenya, from a November 2012 interview with the Economist about corruption in Kenya (that I wish I’d seen earlier but is still worth sharing):

A drought is made by God, a famine is made by man. Drought is big money for the corrupt elite—because it gives you the opportunity to import maize and other staples into the country and make a killing off of the backs of hungry people.

The key implication from his words is that imported maize (corn) and other crops are actually cheaper by weight than crops grown locally in Kenya, because agriculture (including fertilizers, pesticides, and good seeds) is often more subsidized in the US, the EU, and in other developed countries than in Kenya. As a result, political elites can make large profits fairly easily, in the name of helping people. This is more than just a problem of Kenyan political corruption, and probably wouldn’t change even if the level of corruption went down.

Kenya is more corrupt than other African countries. It’s our history. At independence, the state that emerged was a colonial one in many respects – small, aggressive, violent and engineered to serve the interests of only a small elite. Corruption can create an elite which creates a system of patronage that in itself produces a level of stability, where the goodies are being shared out by an elite, and a bit of it trickles down to the poor. Those poor who complain are locked up or killed, and that’s the way it has been for a long time.

I was surprised by this one, both for its honesty and its conclusions. China and its investors have been linked to corruption and exploitation in Africa, and particularly because they target mineral extraction and other resource-intensive industries. Extraction of rare earth metals and fuel result in huge profits but usually require well-educated [foreign] specialists; as a result, very few locals benefit in terms of jobs or payoffs unless contracts explicitly require paying a significant portion of profits to the community. Governments are often hesitant to set strict profit-sharing demands, though, for fear of scaring away investors.

But Kenya isn’t exactly at the center of the diamond, oil, natural gas, copper, coal, and other mineral extraction in Africa, even if the amount extracted is no longer zero. At the same time, Kenyan firms are said to devote 4% of all their sales income on bribes–enough to be hiring 250,000 new employees if the corruption were to stop. And Kenya isn’t actually the worst, according to many sources (though it’s hard to figure out exactly who is worst):

The World Bank’s CPIA Index on government transparency, accountability, and corruption surprisingly ranked Bhutan, St. Lucia, and the Cape Verde islands as having the worst corruption in 2011 (of the countries they were able to rank).

WB CPIA ranking on corruption worldwide for 2011. Darker red = more corrupt.

WB CPIA ranking on corruption worldwide for 2011. Darker red = more corrupt.

Transparency International, in contrast, ranked Somalia, North Korea, and Afghanistan as tied for worst corruption in 2012.

The Sunlight Foundation's map of Transparency International data for corruption in 2012. Again, Kenya is not ranked as worst, though  there is clearly progress to be made.

The Sunlight Foundation’s map of Transparency International data for corruption in 2012. Again, Kenya is not ranked as worst, though there is clearly progress to be made.

Regardless of exactly how corrupt Kenya and other developing countries are measured to be, it is in everyone’s best interest to improve.


Update: For an interesting take on the cultural/psychological/sociological reasons behind perpetuated corruption, especially in developing countries, see Kathleen Reedy’s freshly pressed post on corruption in Afghanistan.

On the Edge of Mainstreaming Sustainability

My close friend and I were arguing yesterday over what work environments and organizations I should strive to work for if I want to stay in the sustainable development field and make a significant difference. My friend A argued that the obvious choices–the World Banks, Oxfams, WWFs, World Resources Institutes, and DfIDs of the world–are not influential enough. They’re too bureaucratic (read: risk-averse and increasingly unused) or too reliant on outside funding (read: risk-averse and unsustainable). Instead, he argued, I should look toward smaller, more nimble organizations that are financially self-sustainable, do more interesting work, and create their own value.

I found one such place today: the Sustainable Food Lab. Its mission is to “clean up” agricultural supply chains; it partners with big businesses like Costco, funders like DfID, and NGOs like Oxfam to come up with sustainable solutions, though many of these currently appear to be on a small scale relative to the size of the market and even the corporations themselves.

I also came across a letter by its director, Hal Hamilton, about how sustainably-minded change by big businesses is not enough: he argues that collaboration between businesses (the private sector), government (the public sector) and NGOs (and it must be all three) is essential for getting past the many perverse incentives to sustainability (like needing to keep a company’s market share by sourcing with the cheapest, most harmful methods possible). In particular, Hamilton seems to imply that government action is especially lacking (such as in the case of Indonesia and palm oil expansion leading to expansive deforestation, despite companies that buy palm oil trying to be more sustainable).

He also included a great quote by his colleague, Adam Kahane:

Change from the top down doesn’t work, and change from the bottom up doesn’t add up.

It was refreshing to hear a realistic perspective on the approaches commonly taken by NGOs to mainstream sustainability and social change, though I’m slightly skeptical of how financially sustainable and transparent their own organization (the Lab) is, based on the lack of annual reports and other systematic reporting. I was also glad to see that the directors acknowledged that partnerships between NGOs and corporations can only go so far, and I’m eager to see what next steps the Lab will propose to push the frontier of what’s feasible, both for the agribusiness industry and business in general.

Companies only make changes that are cost neutral or that gain consumer support. They cannot add costs, in isolation, that make them less competitive… Some of the costs of sustainability require co-investment by other sectors.

FINALLY! The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, in Gates’s 2012 annual letter, acknowledged that we need to focus on and invest in orphan and staple crops in Africa (cassava, millet, sorghum, and yams, albeit in addition to his favorite row crop: maize). Good news, coming from the world’s largest private foundation and considering how stubbornly ignorant they were on this point two years ago.

One thing Gates stressed in his letter was the decreasing proportion of farmers in industrializing countries. Can we afford for the entire world to make this transition to mechanized agriculture and lose our agricultural intuition as the last generations of farmers leave us?

African Agricultural Growth

As I was looking through different organizations’ annual reports for World Bank research, I came across these two interesting charts in CAADP’s (Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme) 2009 report (the most recent one I could find.)

It’s interesting to see how investment didn’t directly correlate with agricultural growth rates (but then again, the 2nd chart doesn’t account for private investments). Glad to see a relatively positive trend, though, and here’s to hoping Zimbabwe gets back on track (if it hasn’t already, since 2008.)

Figure prepared by ReSAKSS (www.resakss.org). Source: WDI, 2009 and UN National Stats, 2009.

Figure prepared by ReSAKSS (www.resakss.org). Sources: SADC 2008; ReSAKSS 2010; Country CAADP Brochures (#4); Country CAADP Stocktaking Reports; IMF 2009; AU, NEPAD, FAO and World Bank Agriculture Expenditure Survey Report 2008; UNECA 2007; ReSAKSS Working Paper #18; ReSAKSS Working Paper #21; Seychelles Government Finance Stats (Abstract 2007).

The Touchy Issue of GMOs…

When we were in Charleston, SC last weekend, my friends from Stanford and I were lucky enough to hear the chef of McCrady’s, Sean Brock, “introduce” us to his views of good food and good agriculture. Here is a guy from rural Virginia who absolutely adores pigs, pork, and lard — not exactly the typical tree-hugging vegan activist — and yet, he’s also a staunch advocate for local food, to the extent that he tried to salvage and grow rice varieties and other grains from the colonial era. One thing was clear from his 5-minute speech: he absolutely hates GMOs.

Don’t get me wrong. I think that locally-growth food and the preservation of genetic diversity is vital for sustainable development and a healthy society. But there’s something to be said for the multitude of countries in Africa and Asia who face land degradation, desertification, droughts, and ultimately famines. It’s all preventable–one look at the articles on the recent East African famine confirms this–and starting with crops that are genetically modified to withstand high temperatures and less water is one step in the right direction.

However, there should be limits. For example, we probably shouldn’t be adding animal genes to plant genomes and vice versa. We also shouldn’t require farmers to use them, as is the case in much of the US due to the coercive powers of Monsanto and other corporations. For all the staunch anti-GMO advocates who argue that letting some be planted will lead to the demise of all wild cultivars, please consider the people who may actually have food on the table in 20 years as a result. Compromise here, as elsewhere, is key.

Three Cheers for the IEG

Today at work, I found out about the IEG (Independent Evaluation Group) at the World Bank, which [according to colleagues] consists of long-time WB employees who are nearing retirement (and therefore aren’t scared of losing their managers’ approval) and who are in charge of evaluating the impact of the World Bank Group’s projects. The non-WB-side (public) version of the IEG website looks far more glamorous than the side I see (and also seems to be missing some of the reports), but it’s still a great tool for figuring out the strengths and weaknesses of the WB and similar institutions at a much more nuanced level than how NGOs evaluate the Bank and its impacts.

Some interesting takeaways on the agriculture end:

  • “IFC investments in agribusiness had above-average development outcome ratings in Latin America and the Caribbean and Europe and Central Asia but have been weak in Sub-Saharan Africa.”
  • “When input support programs succeed bumper crops, the temporary surplus is not always exportable—for example, in Malawi and Zambia; storage facilities are also poor.” (this is from a workshop rather than a report)
  • “Failure of policy makers to view research as a long-term investment.”

Japan and other countries way better than the US at CC mitigation

Today was my first day as an intern at the World Bank! (And I already have a deliverable due by the end of the week, such is life…) At any rate, as I was researching individual nations’ stances toward including agriculture in climate change (CC) negotiations, I found a presentation given by Japan in 2009 on everything they plan to do in order to decrease agricultural GHG emissions. The authors mention many creative (if not new) approaches, including:

  • utilizing manure for energy source by carbonization/methane fermentation facilities
  • cycling biomass resources (composting)
  • expanding the use of rice straw as feed, rather than burning it
  • prolonged mid-season drainage of rice fields
  • reduced fertilizer inputs
  • installing monitoring systems to measure soil carbon
  • reducing emissions (somehow…) from greenhouse horticulture & agricultural machineries

There’s also a great quote from an IPCC report (AR4, which has since been cited everywhere else) that speaks to much of what climate-smart agriculture tries to propone:

“About 89 per cent of technical mitigation potential of agriculture can be achieved by soil carbon sequestration.”

The Symbolism of Progress (or lack of progress)

The New York Times’ India Ink blog ran an interesting story about melting police-seized guns into agricultural tools to try to reduce the levels of violent crime in Bihar. While peace will likely be harder to attain than just by melting guns (especially guns which have been seized after already being used to commit murder), the symbolism of reworking weapons to rework the land is interesting and sounds like something Gandhi would have approved of.

The question now, of course, is whether all these new farm tools will be put to use. Many of the weapons seized were “country-made firearms,” known as katta. This is to say that they are made fairly cheaply and easily. A gunsmith in Ganga recalls:

“The barrel can be made from any hard good quality metal pipe, the butt and the trigger are fashioned from raw metal, the hammer is generally improvised from the spring of a stove and some nails. And if I have the raw material, I can manufacture it in one-and-a-half hour’s time. All I use is a hammer, chisel, pliers, a screw-driver and a forge with bellows,” he adds.

If kattas are made this easily and cheaply, what’s to say that melted guns-turned-farmtools can’t be reworked once more? If the stashes of weapons across the province suddenly disappear, what’s to prevent demand for more guns from rising? It takes a whole societal shift, not just fewer guns. As the same gunsmith observes, “Weddings, festivals and election time usually spell higher sales.” Ironic, no, that weddings, festivals, and fair elections are usually associated with peace and prosperity elsewhere?