Ending Africa's Hunger
Is Bill Gates Africa's Latest Strongman?
The Gates Foundation responds to criticism of its funding decisions by saying that it is learning all the time, with a state-of-the-art system that will soon let the project officers seek feedback through the cellphones of more than 10,000 farmer stakeholders. It's unusual in the world of foundations to have such a strong commitment to correcting mistakes. In its flexibility and openness to reform, the Gates Foundation seems ready to depart from the trajectory of the first Green Revolution.
Stung by widespread criticism over its Green Revolution approach, AGRA representatives have begun participating in public consultations with NGOs and African farm leaders. While this dialogue is an important step, the farm leaders are unhappy about being consulted so late in the game. The UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier De Schutter, recently convened a dialogue on AGRA. There, Simon Mwamba of the Eastern and Southern Africa Small-Scale Farmers' Forum expressed this frustration in no-nonsense terms: "You come. You buy the land. You make a plan. You build a house. Now you ask me, what color do I want to paint the kitchen? This is not participation!"
Nnimmo Bassey, director of Environmental Rights Action in Nigeria, suggests, "If the Gates and Rockefeller Foundations wish to extend the hand of fellowship to the African continent, they should move away from strategies that favor monoculture, lead to land grabs and tie local farmers to the shop doors of biotech seed monopolies." This is feedback that can't so easily be shot back to base through a cellphone.
The calls from African organizations to be able to set the agenda for their own agricultural development are heard only faintly in the United States. That's largely because when it comes to African hunger, prejudices about the incompetence of African farmers and the marvels of biotechnology do a lot of the thinking for us. But the Gates Foundation isn't a victim of poor reasoning. It actively promotes an agenda that supports some of the most powerful corporations on earth. Far more than the peer-reviewed IAASTD study, Gates's strategy reflects another report, funded by the foundation itself: "Renewing American Leadership in the Fight Against Global Hunger and Poverty" from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Knocked out in a couple of months by a small team led by a Gates Foundation senior fellow and stacked with staff from institutions receiving substantial Gates money, the report, while rightly calling for renewed investment and education, again ignores the structural and political causes of Africa's hunger, ascribing it to a technical deficit. The report concludes that the United States needs to "reassert its leadership" in "spreading new technologies," because it will increase trade and "strengthen American institutions." Worse, the council's solutions--with classic Green Revolution hubris--ignore the successful endogenous solutions that have been spreading across the continent for three decades.
Rarely in the history of philanthropy has one foundation--or more correctly, one man--had this kind of power. When Obama made his remarks on the Green Revolution, one Seattle Times journalist suggested that "President Obama and other world leaders seem to be taking their cue from the Gates Foundation." It's not hard to see the paths through which the thinking in Seattle might have made it to Washington, DC. Many AGRA and Gates Foundation employees are former industry and government insiders. Rajiv Shah, a doctor with no previous agricultural experience who was headhunted by the Gates Foundation, is now at the Department of Agriculture, as under secretary for research, education and economics, and also chief scientist.
The foundation's reach extends far beyond Washington. With billions committed to agricultural development, the Gates Foundation has a financial heft equal to that of a government in the global North. In 2007 the United States contributed $60 million to the system of international public agricultural research centers. Gates has pumped $122 million into the system in the past eighteen months alone and given a total of $317 million to the World Bank.
Africa's Green Revolution has another similarity with the first Green Revolution: the technological preferences of the philanthropist shape the approaches on the ground. For the Rockefellers, that meant agricultural technology based on industrial chemistry and oil. For Gates, it's about proprietary intellectual property. Africa's Green Revolution is, in other words, just a new way of doing business as usual.
In its push for technological solutions, its distaste for redistributive social policy and disregard for extant alternatives--as well as in the circumstances that have made food an international security concern--this Green Revolution looks very similar to its predecessor. The biggest issue, however, isn't one of commission but of omission. Just as in India, where peasant demands for land reform in the 1960s that might have led to more sustainable and durable progress (as such reforms did in China, Japan, Taiwan and South Korea) were ignored, African farmers advocating their own solutions to the food crisis are being marginalized. In particular, the vocally articulated demands--for agroecological alternatives, state support for farmer-led research, for land reform, for women's rights in agriculture, and for sharing access to water--all fade into the background when Gates's answers are amplified.
It will take a suite of policies, addressing both the technical and sociopolitical reasons for hunger in Africa, to make lasting change. Technologies for development need to be accompanied by other, political reforms, including canceling debt, removing food and agriculture from the World Trade Organization, investing heavily in farmers' organizations and their proven sustainable agricultural technologies, and supporting the peer-reviewed approaches generated by the science of agroecology.
Models for this kind of change already exist. In Mali, peasant movements have successfully persuaded the government to adopt as a national priority the idea of "food sovereignty," a shorthand for the democratization of the food system. Similar efforts are happening at regional and local levels in other countries. But for those initiatives to register in the United States, the conventional wisdom regarding the Green Revolution needs to be replaced. The tragedy here is not that Africa hasn't had a Green Revolution but that the mistakes of the first may be repeated once more, and that one foundation has the power to make the rest of the world bend to its misguided agenda.