Tag Archive | food security

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.

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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.

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The new FAO Director General (and why things will falter)

In going through recent articles on food security, I was extremely surprised to see such a pompous stance taken by José Graziano da Silva, who will step up as the new FAO director general on January 1, 2011.

1. In the several questions addressed to him explicitly mentioning Africa, he sidestepped the question and instead gave examples from South America. Your background may be specific to Latin America, but if you are to be the global director for such an organization, you ought to know the global state of things.

2. He plans to “start consultations with…poor food importers.” Importing food is not the way to go for any country that already has foreign debts, high poverty rates (thus people can’t afford imported food without high subsidies), and no other industries to fall back on when local economies are driven by smallholder food production.

3. He sees nothing wrong with biofuels other than corn (supposedly because everything else doesn’t distort food prices.) There are other measures of good decision-making besides economic efficiency…

4. The kick: he sees corporate agribusiness as benevolent and complementary to smallholder farmers, and civil society groups as a detriment to progress. Even smallerholders in Brazil are screwed over by Cargill and other global traders. Sure, they may have a market to sell their soy now, but if they’re getting below-market prices because the agribusiness has no competitors, then is that really the best outcome?

The few views from his interview that I would agree with (that were, albeit, rather obvious):

  • More emphasis on diversified food crops
  • Greater cooperation between FAO and other relevant organizations (i.e. IFAD, though one could ask “How?”)
  • Less emphasis on chemical rather than organic fertilizers
  • Development of local markets (which I doubt is within the jurisdiction of the FAO anyway, but he’s a politician after all)

Slums: hotbeds of opportunity?

I was lucky enough to go to Stanford’s Conference on Global Underdevelopment today, and have so, so many thoughts I’d want to discuss. Firstly, (and not surprisingly) I had a bone to pick with Jeff Raikes (or more precisely, with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which he represents as its CEO)… Last year, I was frustrated that the Gates Foundation completely failed to consider staple/orphan crops like cassava, yams, and tef as a funding priority; they were (and still appear to be) more interested in funding corn and other row crops, which have higher rates of return, than crops that actually have direct linkages to food security in developing countries.

This year, I was ecstatic because another audience member, a photographer at National Geographic, brought up the issue of slums to Raikes. Having just returned from Kibera, one of the biggest slums in the world, the photographer wondered why such places aren’t receiving more aid and international attention (including none from the Gates Foundation). I wonder the same thing. When I’d asked others before, their answer was always that NGOs are already serving slums. If that were the case–if NGOS could really have enough prowess and funding to fully provide for hundreds of thousands of chronically poor and malnourished people [per slum!]–I would be impressed.

And yet, these kinds of places represent the perfect opportunity for change: they are highly concentrated, so relatively small investments in infrastructure, education, basic sanitation, health services, and agricultural support would go a long way. Markets for goods already exist, simply due to the number of people living in the area. Credit would be easier to disseminate (and perhaps even easier to enforce), and people are likely to be more entrepreneurial if they can survive under such harsh conditions. What would it take to incentivize philanthropists to invest in slums, if these are not reasons enough?

Slum population in urban Africa (UNDESA 2010)