What does Africa need (or want?)

On the one hand, you’ve got your Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation pumping money into two international agricultural research centres to improve the yield of drought-stressed maize. On the other, you’ve got your ungrateful African civil society organisations declaring that these efforts and others like them “under-represent the real achievements in productivity through traditional methods, and will fail to address the real causes of hunger in Africa”. The truth, obviously, lies somewhere in-between. Is it too sappy to expect the Gates money to flow at least partly into researching traditional methods and agricultural biodiversity? Is it too sappy to expect the civil society organisations to curb their knee-jerk reaction against all modern science and economics?

Still, at least the Gates Foundations isn’t DuPont, telling the World Economic forum of the importance of private-public partnerships (code, I think, for government-subsidized research) to promote hybrid seeds.

3 Replies to “What does Africa need (or want?)”

  1. I don’t follow your assessment that the African civil society organisations are “ungrateful” and that there’s is a “knee-jerk reaction against all modern science and economics.” What’s the basis for that viewpoint? Clearly, from their perspective, they don’t see the issue as so clearly defined.

  2. Thanks for stopping by. I’m guilty of a little hyperbole, I admit, but not much. To focus on the two phrases you ask about, I think that the African CSOs, in their statement, are in danger of rejecting all technology and science. They point to India and seem to blame all those farmer suicides on Western pressure. By the way, there’s a good article about some of those suicides in The Economist but you need a paid subscription to read it in full.

    The fact is that on good land, the Green Revolution worked in India. It is one reason India is better able to feed itself today, despite population growth. It failed on marginal lands, I agree, for the reasons the statement cites. But there are some developments — for example farmer-selected maize based on genebank breeding programmes — that have already made a difference in Africa. Striga-resistant maize is another. Neither problem could have been solved without some science and some assistance. The statement is in danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, which is why I characterised it as ungrateful.

    Of course, a balanced argument won’t get a lot of traction on the world stage, so I quite understand the CSOs approach. I just don’t happen to think it is fair. And, as I made clear, I don’t think much of the DuPont statement either.

  3. It’s easy to say both extremes are always wrong, it’s harder to analyze which extreme may be closer to being right without being accused (or actually falling into) characterizing the other side.

    From my experience in Latin America, at least, I can reasonably assure you that African CSOs aren’t in danger of rejecting all technology. However, I think it’s quite fair to want to put the breaks on technology funded in large part by large Western interests (of the profit or non-profit kind) pending better controls, considering, for example, that hunger is hardly ever related to lack of food production (see various works by Amartya Sen, which have been reasonably uncontested in regards to his analysis on food, and the various UN reports declaring poverty to be the chief cause of food insecurity).

    As Sen points out, entitlements and economic and political power are often at the root of hunger, thus high-yielding technologies will not necessarily do anything to change the fact that people haven’t the money to buy it. India may have benefited from the Green Revolution indeed, certainly trade-wise, but we still have a situation today where “Poor starve while surplus wheat rots,” the title of a NYT article a couple years ago, noting a common occurence in “3rd World” countries where food is kept off the market by companies or government in order to wait for international prices to rise, while those who need the food in their own country aren’t getting it (and in the case of India in 2003 or so, so much grain was kept off the market there weren’t sufficient storage facilities, so much of it rotted in the fields of farmers and in warehouses rather than being distributed).

    This is of course a larger discussion than these couple points, but I wanted to put these out there. In this context, the CSO statement is more than understandable, it’s possibly fair, as the Gates Foundation push will not necessarily change the politico-economic problems that effectively all major experts agree are the present root of the vast majority of hunger problems in the world.

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