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June 06, 2008

Sustainable development advocates enslaving African farmers in grinding poverty

by Dominic Lawson

Sometimes an entire philosophy can be glimpsed in a single remark. So I am grateful to Andrew Dorward of London's School of Oriental and African Studies for his explanation of why it would not be in the interests of Africans to adopt genetically modified herbicide-resistant crops. Dr Dorward told the Financial Times that this would be "disastrous for many poor households" because such crops would "allow the replacement of hand-weeding, which is a big source of income for many."

This is the sort of argument which would have dismissed the invention of the printing press as endangering the livelihood of monks and quill manufacturers. The monks, at least, were not engaged in back-breaking labour-- unlike the sub-Saharan subsistence farmer, who under the blazing sun might spend up to 120 days weeding a single field, instead of utilising the time saved in cultivating new crops or tilling new fields. Yet this is the sort of grinding, life-shortening labour in which the advocates of so-called "sustainable development" wish to keep Africans enslaved – the sort of life which no Westerner would tolerate for himself or his family.

It is characteristic of the double standards which the international aid establishment has been promulgating for years – and which has been evident during the Rome food summit over the past few days. Thus John Hilary, of War on Want, claimed both that it was the "liberalisation" of agricultural markets which lay behind the international food crisis, and also that the Western world should end its protectionist farming policies.

He's right that we should do so – yet for some reason he will not utter a word of criticism against the much-higher agricultural tariffs that exist between the countries of sub-Saharan Africa, and which have an obvious and immediate role in making food more expensive for some of the poorest people on earth. Import controls in the developing world are a dramatic contributor to "food poverty" – so why is "market liberalisation" such a terrible idea?

Such impoverishing policies are defended by the likes of War on Want on the grounds that such actions by governments in the developing world are a proper exercise of "food sovereignty." In practice this actually means nothing more than the right of landowners – who tend to be government ministers – to extort monopoly rents at the expense of those less fortunate.

If I were a cynical man, I would wonder whether the international aid agencies had a vested interest in maintaining such a failed political and economic system, since it keeps entire populations in the state of dependence which justifies their own existence, and their regular appeals to our charitable conscience.

The Common Agricultural Policy remains the most organised conspiracy to maintain global food prices at an artificially high level.

Douglas Alexander, the British Government's Secretary for International Development, was quite right to tell the Rome food summit: "It is unacceptable that the rich countries still subsidise farming by $1bn a day, costing poor farmers in developing countries an estimated $100bn a year in lost income."

It would have been even better if he had mentioned the Common Agricultural Policy, specifically, in that statement. More to the point, I wonder why Gordon Brown – who recently sought to blame the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (Opec) for the high cost of petrol and diesel in our filling stations – has not attacked the much more single-minded cartel known as the Common Agricultural Policy for its contribution to the cost of food in Britain's high streets. Oh, I remember why, now: our country is a member of that infamous cartel.

This is in part why I query the remarks by the Foreign Office minister, Lord Malloch-Brown, after Robert Mugabe had dropped in to make a speech to the gathering. Malloch-Brown declared that "Zimbabwe is one of the few countries whose food crisis is not due to climate change or global prices, but due to disastrous policies."

It's true that Zimbabwe is an extreme case, in which corrupt government policies of land requisition have turned the former African "bread-basket" into a basket-case. Yet across the world, almost every distortion of food production, every misallocation of resources, can be attributed to the interventions of governments, whether as extorters of tax on food, or as lackeys of landowners – or a bizarre combination of both.

In other words, it's not the unfettered free market and globalisation which has caused the world food crisis, but governments who insist that markets can not be trusted – unlike them, of course. What is truly terrifying is that they continue, decade after decade, to get away with it.

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