An evaluation of Gates Foundation and agriculture

The Seattle Times (which one might consider Bill Gates’ local rag) has an interesting and to my mind well-balanced article that attempts to evaluate the Gates Foundation’s effort to support agricultural development in Africa. I’m not going to sum up the arguments here; there’s little point. I am, however, going to draw attention to two aspects of the article.

First, Rajiv Shah, the director of agriculture programs for the Gates Foundation, is “a young medical doctor with an economics degree and background in health policy”. He’s probably also stunningly bright and very able. But who is advising him, and how does he evaluate their advice?

Secondly, the article tells us that:

At a village in rural Uganda recently, Shah sat on the ground with a group of women readying large, round banana-tree bulbs for planting. A staple crop, the banana trees had been suffering from bacterial wilt that cut fruit harvests in half.

This is part of the search for permanent solutions, rather than Band-aid quick fixes, but the fact is, we know how to manage banana bacterial wilt. We really do, especially in the short and medium-term. So while breeding resistant varieties is one potential answer it is an answer to a not-very-urgent-or-important question. Is the Gates Foundation doing anything to help people manage banana bacterial wilt now? I don’t think so, and that’s why many people who are actually working on agricultural development in sub-Saharan Africa find some parts of AGRA and the Gates Foundation’s efforts to be just a little wide of the mark.

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