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June 08, 2008

Senegalese president Wade renews attack on FAO at food summit

By Terence Corcoran*

As the assembled bureaucrats at the world food summit in Rome tucked into their usual symbolic food crisis meals -- vol au vent (a puff pastry base) stuffed with corn and mozzarella, pasta with pumpkin and shrimps, veal meatballs and cherry tomatoes, fruit salad and vanilla ice-cream for dessert, along with a modest Orvieto Classico Poggio Calvelli 2005 ($8.99 a bottle) -- the President of Senegal delivered a blistering attack on the host of the summit, UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO.)

Abdoulaye Wade, who earlier this year called the FAO a "waste of money" that should be "scrapped," said he was disappointed by the latest grand display of bureaucratic failure. "We can't continue to be helped like beggars," said Wade in an address to the summit. "Don't keep imposing institutions (and) experts on us. Africa is not what it was 20 years ago. Stop this farce."

Wade is worth listening to. Among African countries, Senegal is a shining democracy unmarked by the gross corruption of its continental neighbours, with Wade acting as a market-opening liberal who has advanced privatization and other reforms to improve Senegal's economic performance. Last month, Wade took on the FAO, a frequently targeted UN bureaucracy that looks to be part of the problem rather than the solution. He criticized the UN's use of food as "charity." Among his other targets were top humanitarian relief non-governmental organizations (NGOs). He called the FAO a “bottomless pit of money largely spent on its own functioning with very little effective operations on the ground."

Instead of food handouts, Wade said, Africa needs fertilizers, pesticides, irrigation equipment, tractors, technology, and access to the global marketplace, on equal standing, for sale of its products. “We must halt this scenariowhich exploits the North’s altruistic character and the theme of poverty in the South, where titled distributors of aid, or improvised figures recruited to the cause ... Have managed to insert themselves between the resources and their destination and start off by largely helping themselves,” said Wade.

For more on Wade, and for a superior view of the world food crisis, it's hard to beat a recent paper, Food Failures and Futures, by Laurie Garrett of the Council on Foreign Relations. Writes Garrett: "Hundreds of foreign aid organizations -- in the UN system, bilateral government programs, and NGOs -- have tried for decades to improve agricultural production inside poor countries. But the scale of such investment has never come close to the wasteful, self-serving and counterproductive crop-donation schemes."

Here Garrett is taking a shot at the grotesque impact of programs such as the use of subsidies in developed nations to grow food that is then given away to developing nations. "The donated foods enter the local market at prices so low that they completely undermine regional producers."

An example is Malawi, where the U.S. government stepped in with free school breakfasts under a World Food Program -- thus undercutting a bumper crop of Malawian corn. That subsidized U.S. corn drove local corn out of the market is obviously perverse policy. Back to Abdoulaye Wade, who said it is time to end the farce, disband the food bureaucrats who he said were "largely to blame" for the global crisis in food and food prices.

*Terence Corcoran is Editor of the Financial Post.

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