Against the grain


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Africa is to future food markets what the Middle East is to oil production. And both are in turmoil as the U.S. suffers major setbacks to its superpower dominance.

The fact is, the U.S. government’s food aid plan is facing almost as much domestic and global opposition as its war in Iraq. You don’t have to look further than what happened last month when the charity CARE dropped the bombshell that it was boycotting the U.S. African aid scheme.

President Bush has long made Africa a foreign policy priority, both as a world stage for “compassionate conservatism” (a prayer up rather than a hand up) and as a reliable U.S. dependency, thanks to its reliance on U.S. food imports.

But as Kenya-based CARE official George Odo said in mid-August, turning up his nose at about $45 million a year in U.S. government assistance to CARE, “If someone wants to help you, they shouldn’t do it by destroying the very thing they’re trying to promote.’

Few people are aware of the fundamental shift in “foreign aid” policies and practices that took place during the 1990s. Until then, it was assumed that independent countries would control their food supply just as they did their postal service, currency, government and army.

After the formation of the World Trade Organization in 1994, food became just another commodity that could be traded, and stopped being regarded as a fundamental element of domestic security.

The first version of modern, ongoing foreign aid to developing countries dates to a U.S. and Canadian policy initiative in 1954. The two countries, which were lucky enough to have developed without direct colonial occupation and had escaped the devastation of World War II, stepped up to the plate with food surplus to share.

Aid programs were designed to shine a spotlight on the prosperity and generosity of Western-style freedom and industrial capitalism, in contast to dreary and tyrannical Soviet Communism. But they were created as well to manage a controlled offload of massive surpluses of North America wheat and corn that otherwise would glut the market and cause a price collapse.

The donation of food staples would support the colonial world’s move to industrialism and non-food luxury crops (cocoa, coffee, tea and sugar, etc) by making primary food production by “pre-industrial” peasants and small farmers unnecessary. They would be unable to compete with free food from North America and would head for industrial jobs in the city.

But superpower status after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 did not confer inevitable U.S industrial or agricultural dominance. On the contrary, Europe recovered from World War II to become a major food exporter, and many Third World countries fast developed the dark Satanic mills and cheap-labour manufacturing sector that characterized early industrialism in Europe and America.

The U.S. held onto its advantages: leadership in military equipment, patented science, information and entertainment products and cheap food that took full advantage of expensive government subsidies.

In this new world order, the U.S. paid annually for about $2 billion worth of food grown in the U.S., stored by U.S. traders, then shipped via U.S. carriers to a handful of U.S. charities in a variety of countries, mainly in Africa.

The charities financed themselves and their development programs by selling that food, often at rates that drove local farmers into bankruptcy and made them dependent on charitable aid. Some of the charities supported innovative programs to boost farm incomes and regional self-reliance helping farmers grow oil seed for fuel, for example only to see those programs bankrupted by U.S. imports sold at giveaway prices.

The countries that received this and other direct food aid from the U.S. government were selected partly on the basis of need and partly because they were willing to abandon protection of local farmers and accept genetically engineered food imports.

This aid package was famously challenged in 2002 when Zambia refused to accept food that had been genetically engineered. European food aid, influenced by Nobel economist Amartya Sen’s view that the best food aid is cash to support local farmers, set a powerful example of alternative approaches to aid and to genetic engineering.

By 2004, leaders of CARE had started questioning the point of the ludicrous mechanism for supporting self-defeating charitable work.

In April of this year, the U.S. Government Accountability Office got into the act, condemning an aid regime that provides more aid to U.S. food trading companies and merchant carriers than to hungry people. Even Bush talked about the need to donate more cash to African farmers.

And then the tipping point tipped and CARE made its announcement in mid-August. The old joke about 1950s-style aid was that it was financed by the poor of the First World to help the rich of the Third World.

The new one would have to be that post-90s aid was financed by the poor of America for the rich of America. The paradigms, they are a changin’.



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