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  • Writer's pictureBenny Dembitzer


The Western world has been neglecting – probably deliberately – to aid poor countries to develop their own agriculture. The ‘probably deliberately’ is my interpretation that the most powerful players in the agricultural fields (the whole of the food issues, really) are Western companies and the weakest, those that cannot offer any resistance, are the poorest nations in the world. The more you are able to play on your economic power, the more fragile becomes their political power, and the more we can manipulate them.

Most of the poor world is a rural world. That is true of East Asia, the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa. It is a world of people who produ

ce food for their own selves and their families. Giving ‘them’ what ‘we’ want to give is perhaps not what they want to receive – or could help them. Given that agriculture accounts for such a small part of rich world’s economic profile – by which I mean, in terms of employment, percentage of GDP, value of exports – we understand very little of what is required to develop agriculture. Most of us think that having green fingers and doing a bit of gardening is bringing us close to agriculture. It is not. The cost of a piece of land itself in the rich world has been calculated at perhaps one quarter of what its real value is. The roads that lead to our arable fields, the electricity lines that connect them to the grid, the water delivered to the door of the farmer, the equipment that is used to irrigate, plant, and collect the crops are what makes land valuable.

AID IS NOT DEVELOPMENT In the situation I have tried to describe above, what is needed is a radically different approach to what we ask through our governments, their governments, our international institutions. Between 75 and 85% of the population of sub-Saharan Africa consists of subsistence farmers. That is the scale of the challenges.

We need to enable farmers to feed themselves, use their own traditional seeds that have adapted over decades to local conditions, use natural composting, develop vermiculture, own their own lands, have adequate tools, deal with the specific issues that arise in their areas – swarms of locusts, flooding of the rivers, lack of rural roads to reach the markets.

We need to help to change the entire context in which food is produced, harvested, conserved, marketed. It is called food sovereignty. That requires governments (ours and theirs), international agencies, voluntary organisations, and local institutions to be holistic in their approach. That will lead to development. Possibly.

HOW TO PRODUCE Farmers all over the world since wheat started to be harvested some 12,000 years ago, have always hoarded a part of their harvests of wheat to use as seeds for the following harvest. That has applied for all elements of food production. But our inducements to make them produce more and more of what they must export to us has meant that we have encouraged them into monoculture. We have often induced them to produce for us through schemes under which our companies advance them seeds and then guarantee to buy back their production. That has encouraged them to move to chemically produced seeds. These are inert – they last for one harvest. They require chemically produced fertilisers that require more chemically produced pesticides and herbicides, and so on – the ‘pesticides treadmill.

HOW TO TREAT THE SOIL In our parts of the world, we have learnt to look after the land and the soil. You make sure that the water is directed to flow through canals. We reserve parts of the land for one type of crop and another for some other crops, we know what grows best on sandy soil, on alkaline soils, on clay soils. Some parts are left for trees or for animal grazing or housing or water reservoirs. We know what is best for any of these uses because we have agricultural support services that can advise the farmers. Most of our systems of support are filled with people who are used to read documents and follow instructions and recommendations. The government encourages farmers through subsidies to put some cover crops in the winter months to prevent soil erosion. But we seldom realise that the carrying capacity of the soil is actually limited.

OWNERSHIP OF THE LAND In poor countries, a smallholder farmer seldom knows whether she (in most parts of sub-Saharan Africa most farmers are women) really owns what she tills. She might have done it most of her life, asked her family to join in and improve it a bit, but she does not own it. That land is owned by the local chief, by the elders of the village, by the chief or king of the clan. If you are lucky and your son has managed to escape to the Middle East and got a job and sends back some money, you will have no incentive to put into bettering your land because, if you have built some irrigation canals or a small water reservoir, one of the elders could claim rights over your land. You could rent at an agreed annual rate, and the contract could be broken. You have no rights, because there is no law, except that of the traditional powers that be. If a rich man wants to acquire the land, an entire village can be dispossessed because the government or a powerful chief has agreed to sell it. You have no rights.

CONTEXT IS EVERYTHING Donating some money for a water well for a farmer is not enough. You need to make sure that the village ‘owns’ it, in the sense that it will be accepted as commonly held assets, that everyone will have water rights over it, that someone will be able to maintain it. None of these elements that make worth giving money to a water project is present in most parts of the poor world. If you are in government or are a foreign investor and your target is to produce more food, the solution appears very simple. You go in, all guns ablaze, you mechanise the work of digging, build the canals and dig the water wells, bring in diesel generators to provide energy. This is what the governments of the West want the governments of the South to encourage in Africa. Get rid of the farmers, take over the land, bring in financial muscle to dig canals, chemically produced seeds, and change the entire profile of agriculture.

The farmers are thrown into the slums of the cities. This is what the Government of India tried to do to their own small-scale farmers. This is why thousands of small farmers of India rebelled, invaded the capital, blockaded the roads for months on end in 2020. They won. In Africa, small farmers will never win. Small farmers will flock to the cities and then try to migrate. They have no choice.

WHAT TO PRODUCE Poor countries owe a lot of money to rich ones, or to the institutions that lend poor countries money advanced from rich ones. They have to repay those debts. As a result, they must produce those items that they have started to produce since the days of colonialism. Some have become very good at it. We are so used to getting sugar from the West Indies, tobacco from Malawi, coffee from Ethiopia, avocadoes from Kenya, flowers from Ethiopia, cotton from Sudan, mangetout from Tanzania, grapes and wine from South Africa. We force them to export unprocessed primary commodities but do not allow them to process them.

THE POVERTY OF ECONOMICS All that is happening is because the economic world in which we are living and operating is too partial. We are forcing our world to be regimented according to the World Bank and the other great financial institutions. All economic returns are valued according to prices and returns on capital. The valuation and costs of the externalities are neglected. They include not just the cost of transport and industrialisation of agriculture but also, to most ordinary people, the far more enormous social and societal costs of abandoning farming communities all over the world to fend on their own. Neglecting the economics of poverty defines the poverty of economics.

If we want to really help them develop, we should give them aid to be independent from us. If that means we have to eat a few less Mexican steaks and fewer avocadoes from China, or quinoa from Columbia and teff from Ethiopia, so be it. It would be better than a few £ or $ in regular donations.

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