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abebe gellaw food summit

Ethiopia: Food for Famine and Thought!

By Alemayehu G. Mariam

The New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition

G8At the recent 2012 G8 Food Security Summit in Washington, D.C., Abebe Gellaw, a young Washington-based Ethiopian journalist, stood up in the gallery and thunderously proclaimed to dictator Meles Zenawi, “… Food is nothing without  freedom…” Is he right?

When President Obama invited the leaders of Ghana, Tanzania, Benin and Zenawi to the Summit  on May 18, few expected any meaningful outcomes. A White House statement on the Summit declared: “The New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition is a shared commitment to achieve sustained and inclusive agricultural growth and raise 50 million people out of poverty over the next 10 years by aligning the commitments of Africa’s leadership to drive effective country plans and policies for food security; the commitments of private sector partners to increase investments where the conditions are right; and the commitments of the G-8 to expand Africa’s potential for rapid and sustainable agricultural growth.” To implement the “New Alliance” and spark a Green Revolution in Africa, dozens of global food companies, including multinational giants Cargill, Dupont, Monsanto, Kraft, Unilever, Syngenta AG, have signed a “Private Sector Declaration of Support for African Agricultural Development”.

The vast majority of Ethiopians eke out a living as smallholder farmers. According to a 2010 USAID report, eight of every ten Ethiopians live in rural areas with average land holdings of 0.93 hectare. A 2011 report by the Oakland Institute  (OI) stated that Zenawi’s regime has “transferred at least 3,619,509 ha of land to investors, although the actual number may be higher.” These “lease” transfers (for 99 years) are handed out to companies from India, China, Saudi Arabia and 36 other countries for pennies per hectare. The OI further  reported that “displacement from farmland is widespread, and the vast majority of locals receive no compensation.” The displaced farmers who have lost their ancestral lands to “leases” are mostly indigenous minority peoples.

In 2011, Africa imported $50 billion worth of food from the U.S. and Europe. Food prices in Africa are 200-300 percent higher than global prices, which means higher profit margins for multinationals that produce and distribute food. With a steady growth in global population, the prospect of transforming Africa into vast commercialized farms is mouthwatering for global agribusinesses. The “New Alliance for Food Security” will accelerate at warp speed the “transfer” of hundreds of millions of hectares of arable African land to Cargill, Dupont, Monsanto, Kraft, Unilever, Syngenta AG and the dozens of other signatory multinationals. Working jointly with Africa’s corrupt dictators, these multinationals will “liberate” the land from Africans just like the 19th Century scramble for Africa; but will they liberate Africa from the scourge of hunger, famine, starvation and poverty?

A Brief Lesson in African History

Berlin confIn 1894,  fourteen European and other countries including the U.S. (the “G-14” of the era) held a land grab conference in Berlin to “save” the Dark Continent. The publicity cover for the conference was the liberation of Africa from the slave trade and the need to undertake a civilizing mission. To that end, the Berlin Conference passed hollow resolutions. But the real agenda was to carve up Africa between the European powers peacefully and without the need for internecine imperialistic wars. The Scramble for Africa gave Britain a nice slice of Africa stretching from Cape-to-Cairo. France gobbled up much of western Africa. King Leopold II of Belgium took personal possession of the Congo. Portugal grabbed Mozambique and Angola. Italy snagged Somalia and laid claim to parts of Ethiopia.

Ironically, the G-8’s “New Alliance” smacks of the old Scramble for Africa. The G-8 wants to liberate Africa from hunger, famine and starvation by facilitating the handover of millions of hectares of Africa’s best land to global multinationals in Ethiopia, Mozambique, Uganda, Zambia, Malawi, Mali, Senegal, Tanzania, Sudan, Nigeria and  Ghana, among others. Is history repeating itself in Africa? Only the people of Madagascar have been able to successfully fight back and rescue their country from the clutches of the international land grabbers by dumping their president.

Ethiopian Hunger Games

When it comes to famine and starvation in Ethiopia, the standard response by the ruling regime and its international donors is to deny, evade and sugarcoat the whole thing in clever euphemisms (calling it “severe malnutrition, “food insecurity”, etc.; see my commentary, African Hunger Games at Camp David ), blame droughts and natural forces and endlessly supply food handouts. Bad governance, dictatorships  and corruption are rarely blamed for the predictable and recurrent famines and starvation in Ethiopia.

Last week, the UN World Food Programme (WFP) in Ethiopia announced that “3.2 million people are food insecure in Ethiopia” and that it needs an additional US$183 million to provide emergency assistance. At the same time, Mitiku Kassa, Zenawi’s official responsible for agriculture, blamed the “food insecurity” on drought: “Irregularity in rainfall seasons resulting in problems of such a kind is not a new thing to us. We faced it last year and a year before that and we are managing it so far… The country has enough resources and mechanisms in place to deal with it this time, though.” The  mechanism in place is beggary proficiently practiced as a high  art form by Zenawi’s regime over the past two decades. A little over a month ago, the U.S. pledged to provide nearly $200 million in additional humanitarian aid to Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa. In 2011, the U.S. provided more than $1.1 billion in humanitarian aid. Ethiopia received more than US$3 billion in 2008, making that country the largest recipient of development aid in Africa.

To say that Ethiopia will continue to face chronic “food insecurity” is like predicting the sun will rise tomorrow. “Food insecurity” (a/k/a famine) in Ethiopia is expected to reach biblical proportions by 2050.  In 2011, the U.S. Census Bureau made the catastrophic prediction that Ethiopia’s population by 2050 will more than triple to 278 million. That did not stop Zenawi from declaring a crushing victory on famine in 2011: “We have devised a plan which will enable us to produce surplus and be able to feed ourselves by 2015 without the need for food aid.” Zenawi’s plan to “produce surplus” is to stretch out cupped palms for handouts of crumbs left over from exports by Karuturi Global, Saudi Star, Cargill, Monsanto… and the rest.

It is manifest that with the “New Alliance”, the U.S. and the other G8 countries have willfully blinded themselves to the moral hazard of endlessly aiding famine victims in Africa and unashamedly accepted the moral bankruptcy of endlessly aiding African dictators. It is axiomatic for them that providing endless handouts to impoverished and famished Africans is their divinely ordained “burden”, to borrow a word from the poet Rudyard Kipling who romanticized British colonialism. But they are now playing a far more sophisticated and deadly “hunger game” in Africa. They want to use multinational food conglomerates to “save” Africa from starvation by 1) subsidizing  these giant agribusinesses to dump their agricultural surpluses in famine-stricken African countries, and 2) by greasing the hands of Africa’s corrupt dictators so that these multinationals could “lease” hundreds of millions of acres of Africa’s most arable land to cultivate export crops that command high prices on the global commodities markets, without contributing much to the domestic African market to alleviate endemic hunger. The “New Alliance” is a brilliant strategy that will sustain the decades long vicious cycle of dependence and food aid addiction in Africa while displacing and severely undercutting the productive capacity of  the African smallholder farmers to deal with famine on their own.

Keeping Them Honest!

khanIt is noteworthy that few in the mainstream U.S. or international media paid any attention to the proceedings of the “New Alliance” food Summit. Even the international humanitarian organizations thought it was a publicity stunt. Oxfam was dismissive: “The New Alliance is neither new nor a true alliance. The rhetoric invokes small-scale producers, particularly women, but the plan must do more to bring them to the table.”  ActionAid was instructive: “While the New Alliance touts the role of the private sector, as President Obama said, this must include even the smallest African cooperatives. The real innovators in African agriculture are women smallholder farmers.  Any private sector partnership to improve food security must place them and African civil society at the center.”

What needs special attention is the basic approach to “food security” that was discussed and not discussed at the summit. Rajiv SHAH, the USAID Administrator and moderator of the food security Summit directing his remarks to Zenawi said:

… So many people have associated a mental image of hunger with Ethiopia and at the same time because of actions in the public sector maintaining strong public investment in agriculture you were able to protect millions of Ethiopians during the recent drought from needing food aid and food assistance.  Could you speak to, even as we are launching a new food alliance, to engage the private sector, could you speak to some of the comments you have shared with us privately how important it is we live to our commitments to invest in public investment, in public institutions?

Zenawi responded:

Ultimately, agricultural  transformation in Africa is going to be a partnership between the smallholder farmer and the private sector. But the most important actor here is the smallholder farmer that 70 percent of [interruption by Abebe Gellaw calling Zenawi “a dictator…”] 70 percent of the population in Africa is smallholder farmers, so without transforming their livelihoods there is no future for agriculture in Africa. So at this stage the role of the private sector can only be to supplement the small scale farmer. There is the issue of rural roads, water supply systems, irrigation infrastructure. All of these require public investment; and yes, we need more of it. But we also need public investment. We in Africa are doing all we can, as I said, most of our countries are moving towards 10 percent of their budgets invested in agriculture; but we need partnerships. This morning the President [Obama] was talking about the L’Aquila Initiative  with $22 billion of money promised. We want the money promised delivered as the President was saying. We need that for public investment in infrastructure. We also need the developed countries to do something about trade because when you subsidize your farmers, our farmers who cannot be subsidized by our poor governments cannot compete. In the European Union, for example, every cow earns about $2 per day. Now that is more than the average African farmer gets and so if the subsidies were to be dealt with, we could have a better way of trading out of poverty.

Khan’s assertion that Zenawi by “maintaining strong public investment in agriculture [was] able to protect millions of Ethiopians during the recent drought from needing food aid and food assistance” is simply a statement made in reckless disregard for the truth, and arguably borders on a patent falsehood.  The fact of the matter is that USAID is clueless about its agricultural programs in Ethiopia,   according to the audit report of the Office of the Inspector General of USAID (March 2010, at p. 1):

The audit was unable to determine whether the results reported in USAID/Ethiopia’s Performance Plan and Report were valid because agricultural program staff could neither explain how the results were derived nor provide support for those results. Indeed, when the audit team attempted to validate the reported results by tracing from the summary amounts to the supporting detail, it was unable to do so at either the mission or its implementing partners… In the absence of a complete and current performance management plan, USAID/Ethiopia is lacking an important tool for monitoring and managing the implementation of its agricultural program.

In cases where USAID has been served with credible allegations of misuse of humanitarian and development aid for political purposes, it has turned a blind eye, deaf ears and muted lips. In 2009, the U.S. State Department, under which the USAID operates as the agency primarily responsible for administering civilian foreign aid, promised to investigate allegations that “$850 million in food and anti-poverty aid from the U.S. is being distributed on the basis of political favoritism by the current prime minister’s party.” No report has been issued.

Khan and Zenawi can talk about “public investment” and the “smallholder farmer” until the cows come home, but the fact of the matter is that neither Ethiopia nor the rest of Africa can achieve food sufficiency by tethering predatory multinational corporations with corrupt African dictators in a new “alliance  for food security” and and strapping them around the necks of Africa’s smallholder farmers. A joint venture between jackals and hyenas will never benefit the gazelles.

There are some simple questions that need to be asked about Ethiopia’s hunger games: Could Ethiopia reasonably expect to achieve food security when its citizens are prohibited by law from owning agricultural (for that matter all) land? Does it make sense to hand out the country’s most arable land to “foreign investors” to produce food for export and ensure food security in other countries when Ethiopians are dying from starvation?  Could Ethiopia reasonably expect to be saved from famine, starvation or “chronic food insecurity” by Karuturi, Saudi Star, Cargill, Dupont and the rest of the vampiric leeches? Does the smallholder Ethiopian farmer scratching out a living on 0.93 hectare stand a snowball’s chance in hell against Karuturi, Saudi Star, Cargill, Dupont…? Is the ultimate destiny of the smallholder African farmer to be a consumer of food produced by global agricultural multinationals instead of being a local producer and harvester of his/her own food?

Zenawi has adamantly opposed private ownership of land, which by all expert accounts is the single most important factor in ensuring food security in any nation. In 2000,  Zenawi said (and has repeatedly taken similar positions since):

I have not heard of any truly convincing reason as to why we should privatize land ownership at this stage. I have not heard of any economic rationale for doing so. If there were to be an overwhelming economic rationale to do it and ultimately that would be the best way of securing the interests of our peasant farmer and therefore politically that would be our agenda… But at the same time we do not have any illusions as to what land ownership can do to the peasant farmer over the long-term. We do not believe that the long-term future and destiny of our peasant farmers is to be stuck in the mud, so to speak. We feel that ultimately there has to be industrialization,ultimately these people have to find to get employment outside agriculture.

In 2012, Zenawi pontificates about the need to “transform the livelihoods Africa’s smallholder farmers” through “public investment” and predicts “there is no future for agriculture in Africa.” He just does not get it!  There can be no smallholder farmer when there is no land to have and to hold. The smallholder Ethiopian farmer that Zenawi talks about is no better than the sharecropper or the tenant farmer. When the smallholder farmer is arbitrarily evicted from his land because he refuses to support Zenawi’s regime, denied fertilizer because he voted for the opposition or is put on the blacklist and watched day and night by hordes of  informants because he wants to remain politically independent, he is no longer a smallholder farmer. He becomes a landless, hopeless, helpless, restless, hapless, rootless, voiceless and powerless panhandler of international food aid. Without the small holder farmer, not only is there not a future for agriculture in Africa, there is no future for Africa itself!

USAID, Ethiopia’s largest donor, in its 2010 report (perhaps unread by Khan), makes the simple point that effective agricultural development and long-term food security requires “100% ownership and buy-in by the Ethiopian people”. But instead of a “buy in”, Zenawi has pursued a relentless and ruthless policy of kick out, resulting in the displacement and confiscation of ancestral lands from countless small holder farmers. Now, Zenawi rubs his hands with glee to swipe his cut of the $22 billion promised in the L’Aquila Initiative. That is all he cares about!

Food  is Nothing Without Freedom!

Ethiopia’s four-decade old dependence on humanitarian food aid will continue and worsen. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child provide that it is the natural right of all people to have access to food. But under Zenawi, Ethiopians face a double whammy: A insatiable hunger for food and an unquenchable thirst for freedom, democracy and human rights. Ethiopians suffer from hunger and thirst because they are victims of a ruthless dictatorship!

In 2007, speaking at the World Food Day, President Horst Köhler of Germany made the following extraordinarily insightful statement:

Hunger is not an inescapable destiny, but can be eliminated by wise policies. This requires first and foremost that the governments of the developing countries make food security for their populace a priority goal…. Democratic participation by the people is the best guarantee that governments will genuinely understand people’s basic needs and will take these into account.  As the Indian Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen has so aptly said, in countries where there are no elections and there is no opposition, governments do not need to worry about political fallout from their failure to eradicate poverty…. Good governance and a functioning executive are absolutely  crucial for an economic policy that is geared to the needs of the people and will help to eradicate poverty

Who can seriously expect a smallholder to invest his savings in his farm and machinery if he fears he may be  thrown off the land at any time?… Excessive long-term help from outside can stifle the recipients’ initiative and frequently even results in aid-dependency. …Hunger is above all the result of political mistakes – in the developing countries as in the industrialized nations.  To conquer hunger in our globalized world we need an honest, reliable and partnership-based development policy that spans the entire planet…

Perhaps President Obama could begin a new alliance for food security based on honesty and a genuine commitment to fundamental democratic principles that could help alter permanently Africa’s destiny as the beggar continent. The real solution to famine in Ethiopia lies in nourishing the emaciated Ethiopian body politic with clean elections, accountability, transparency, open political space and robust human rights protections. In 2009, he lamented, “There is no reason why Africa cannot be self-sufficient when it comes to food. I have family members who live in villages — they themselves are not going hungry — but live in villages where hunger is real.” President Obama should remind Zenawi and the rest of the African gang of dictators that though man does not live by bread alone, a hungry man in the village is an angry man!

Amharic translations of recent commentaries by the author may be found at:

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